When Michael Owen was released from Manchester United recently, Valencia stepped up to become Manchester United’s new Number 7. However, it is my strong belief that Nani should have been the one to don the jersey instead.
Why, you might ask?
Before we get into my rationale, let’s explore the significance of the Number 7, and Manchester United’s love affair with that number.
To sum it in one word, it’s the history. That’s the best way to try to describe the importance of the Number 7.
If we look at the kinds of players who have worn the Number 7 and their contribution to the United team, it would give a pretty clear indicator as to the prerequisite of one wearing such a jersey.
I guess we can say the late George Best was the catalyst for specializing the Number 7. Graceful on the field, infamously lavish in his lifestyle, he won the Ballon d’Or in the year he scored in the 1968 European final in a 4-1 victory over Benfica.
Next in the Number 7 list would be Bryan Robson. Nicknamed ‘Captain Marvel’, he is the longest-serving captain in the club’s history. Such was his influence and ability, he was voted club’s best ever player in 2011!
If Robson was the best United player, famous collar popper Eric Cantona was certainly the most enigmatic. In his rather short stint at United, he still managed to win four Premier League titles, two FA Cup wins, mixing it up with lengthy bans and fines in the process.
David Beckham, the golden boy of England, is next up in our condensed historical list of great Number 7s. Really, do I need to explain his talented right foot, global appeal, and how he and the Number 7 worked hand in hand to sell the most number of United jerseys?
Finally, we come to Cristiano Ronaldo, the first-ever Premier League player to have won the Fifa World Player of the Year award, and the club’s first Ballon d’Or winner since Best in 1968. This was what he said about his relationship with the Number 7:
“After I joined, the manager asked me what number I’d like. I said 28. But Ferguson said ‘No, you’re going to have Number 7,’ and the famous shirt was an extra source of motivation. I was forced to live up to such an honour.”
In summary, history states that the Number 7 player is more than just a good attacking player. A Number 7 is one who possesses exceptional talent and technique, ability to turn a game on its head, the consistency to perform week in week out and of course a superstar personality to go along with all that.
Based on these benchmarks, it is my feeling that with the squad United have currently, Nani is the player who comes closest to fitting the bill as the bearer of the Number 7 jersey.
This could very well be Nani’s season to shine. Of course the same was said of him at the start of last season, how he was going to shine for 2011/2012 as well. Let’s be honest, at times, he did play well. But there was never that level of consistency we would expect of a Number 7, or a player of Nani’s standards and caliber. Ronaldo did raise (or spoil) expectations, breaking all sorts of goal scoring records. From scoring 6 goals in 40 appearances in his first season to scoring 42 goals in 48 games in his final season in Man United, Nani’s performances have been pale in comparison to his Portuguese counterpart.
But if we want to use Ronaldo as a means of comparison, well, it was in his 6th season in United that he really cemented his status as the Captain America of football. Now here is where I tell you it will be Nani’s 6th season at Manchester United this coming season. Coincidence in the making, perhaps?
Still, if Nani is to be billed among the world’s best, he has to perform more consistently sooner rather than later. With the pressure and motivation of wearing the Number 7 this season (had he been given the number), the probability of him filling the number 7 shoes (or jersey) would certainly help his cause, as well as United’s.
That all said, we now come to the player who HAS been given the Number 7 – Valencia.
With Valencia, we get a hard-working, all-rounded player with his direct and incessant runs, covering defensive positions willingly, along with creating mayhem for opposing players. It really is no surprise that he was United’s players’ and fans’ player of the year for 2011-12. He was truly the standout contributor to the team, and no points for figuring out that more of the same would be expected of him this season.
But you see, here lies the problem. It is something we subconsciously subscribe to, yet do not acknowledge, and I am guilty of it too at times. Any positive contribution that Valencia has towards the team would be inflated because one would not have as high expectations of him as, say, Nani.
We put Valencia in a better light because he surpasses the potential that we expect from him. On the other hand, we expect so much more from Nani because we know he is capable of much, much more.
Does this then mean that Nani is a weaker player than Valencia, hence less deserving of the Number 7 jersey?
Well, numbers do speak volumes; so let’s allow the statistics to do the talking.
Comparison between Valencia’s and Nani’s Performances 2011/2012 Season
From the table, we see that both Nani and Valencia have similar playing minutes.
We know Sir Alex Ferguson played Valencia at right back for a number of occasions to ease the defensive crises United was facing due to injuries. Unsurprisingly, Valencia is seen to be the better tackler – having more tackles (66 VS 38) and higher percentage of tackle success (78% VS 73%). However, this is not to say Nani is defensively innate. It might surprise some, but Nani has a slightly better percentage of ground 50-50s win (45% VS 44%) and aerial 50-50s win (29% VS 20%).
However, Nani can be more careless in possession (Nani loses possession every 37 minutes as compared to Valencia losing possession every 45 minutes). This is expected because Nani often tries to take players on and beat them with his technique and trickery. Taking players on is a riskier choice, but it is not without its rewards as Nani has had more successful dribbles per game in comparison to Valencia (1.83 VS 1.3). Valencia, however, makes use of his other teammates to beat players, hence he comes out tops in passing, having attempted more passes and possessing a better pass completion rate (78% VS 70%).
In the creativity aspect of the attacking third, Nani creates a chance every 31 minutes to Valencia creating a chance every 33 minutes. In front of goal, Nani is more potent, with more goals (8 VS 4) and more shots towards goal (49 shots VS 17 shots).
So now that we’ve seen the numbers, can we really say Nani is a less able player than Valencia?
By and large, the statistics showed Nani to be more of an attacking threat (this is discounting the times Valencia played at right back where his attacking play would obviously be compromised). Nevertheless, a Number 7-esque player (considering the unspoken rule that he should be an out-and-out attacking player) should be judged by his number of goals, and contributions towards goals, and as mentioned, Nani would have just about nicked that in terms of numbers. After all, goals are how we remember Ronaldo by, not his defensive traits.
Nani’s goal scoring prowess, along with his tank of potential, which still has lots of space to fill, makes him my obvious choice to wear the Number 7 jersey.
But you know what? At the end of the day, one can always say 7 is but just a number. With or without the Number 7, it is with a mixture of belief and hope that Nani will become the player we expect of him and be remembered as a United great.
After all, Manchester United has had great players come and go, who have never worn the Number 7.