Nani, Manchester United and perpetual stagnation 0

Manchester United have this evening reached an agreement with Sporting Lisbon for Argentine defender Marcos Rojo, and as part of the deal Nani will be moving to the Portuguese side initially on-loan.

Although they’re doubtless disappointed to be losing Rojo, the Sporting fans will presumably be relatively happy with that transfer and will be pleased to see Nani come back to the club.  Back in 2007 he was one of the elite prospects in Europe and to see him return during his theoretical prime should soften the blow of losing Rojo.

So how changed is the 27 year-old Nani from the 20 year-old boy who left Portugal for Manchester United seven years ago?

Barely at all.  He is almost exactly the same player.

During his time in England, Nani has been a study of self-defeat;  a fabulously gifted footballer who never failed to limit his own impact.  When Sir Alex Ferguson made the decision to sign him, few argued with the logic.  Nani was a raw player, but he was blessed with extravagant talent and possessed not only the ability to beat defenders at will but also with a siege-gun of a right-foot.  Ferguson probably reasoned that, with time and with maturity, the self-indulgence in the Portuguese’s game would simply melt away and that he and United would be left with one of the finest attacking-midfielders in Europe.

And why shouldn’t have believed that?  He and his staff were four years into the same process with Cristiano Ronaldo, so the channeling of raw talent was very much something within their coaching repertoire.

That never happened though and despite fleeting success and periodically impressive statistical contributions, Nani became synonymous with frustration at Old Trafford.  He never acquired the necessary footballing intelligence to truly maximise his ability and there was never a point in his Premier League career at which he seemed to understand when to quicken the pace of the play and when to slow it down, when not to take on an extra defender, and that cutting-in off his wing and shooting is a very effective way to kill attacking momentum.

During his time at Inter Milan, Jose Mourinho endured a fractious relationship with Mario Balotelli and the current Chelsea manager frequently aired his frustrations with the forward in public.  How absurd it was, mused Mourinho to the Italian press, that even though he was surrounded by so much talent, Balotelli still showed no obvious signs of maturation.

Ferguson could well wondered the same about Nani.  Not only was Cristiano Ronaldo a technical and mental roadmap, but Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs were both still effective members of the first-team and both were perfect adverts for the value of mixing economy in possession with individual ability.  The examples were all there for Nani.

He never learnt, though, and he never showed any real willingness to progress.  Had Nani been less technically able, his career at Manchester United would probably be viewed differently, but there was always a disparity between the impact he did have in England and the one he could and should have had.

Think about the players he was constantly around, the coaching staff he worked with, and the manager he played for: in that situation, it’s staggering that such an obvious talent didn’t just improve by osmosis.

Imagine what he could have been.

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