When Cristiano Ronaldo departed Old Trafford for sunnier pastures there was much discussion over who would assume his mantle.
The pundits speculated about any number of potential transfers to be made with Antonio Valencia eventually arriving for a massive fee. And, largely ignored in the statements coming from press and Old Trafford, Luís Carlos Almeida da Cunha began to step from the shadow of his international teammate and began writing his own legacy in Manchester.
Since the 2008/09 season Nani has steadily increased his production for Manchester United. The Red Devils winger has shown exceptional ability, wonderful vision and a sublime touch while seemingly disappearing during some of United’s biggest contests. While the debate over Nani’s ability to perform at the highest stage is one best reserved for friendly banter over a pint, a careful examination of his statistics from the past four seasons show that the Portuguese play-maker has become an integral part of Sir Alex squad. While Nani’s primary importance to the side are his contributions made in the middle of the pitch, we’ll examine not only his passing here but also his scoring and defensive statistics. In the graph above, the two blanks for Assists and Chances Created (Open Play v Setplay) are not unintentionally left blank, the Opta stats we’re working from do not include them.
Nani’s pasing has always been quality, 75% completion of his open play passes may not be as good as players like Modric (86% last year) or Cesc (81% last year) but his qaulity with the ball at his feet makes up for the lack of elite level passing . Nani’s ability to dribble with the ball is quite good, having undertaken 81 successful dribbles a year ago. His pace this season is nearly as good, embarking on more than 2 per game. Further, his crossing game is exceptional. Players like Liverpool’s Stewart Downing and United’s own Ash Young are often touted as better but Young attempted just 246 crosses last season with Villa, connecting on 71 for 31% accuracy while Downing attempted 324, connecting on just 79 for 24% accuracy.
While Manchester United certainly does not lack for creativity or skill from their attacking players, Nani’s unique blend has already generated better numbers in 2011/12 than a year ago. His 3 goal assists through eleven games keeps him on pace to contribute 10 assists or more this season. Additionally, his goal scoring pace, coupled with his presence in the attack have made him a valuable link between the stoic United defense and the sublime finishing skill of Rooney, Chicharito and Co.
On the attack Nani is a devistating weapon, able to make goals and score them. His shot selection, often a headache for his manager and a point of contention with the supporters, has not improved this season but he is converting his chances at nearly twice his historic rate.
The goals have obviously increased markedly as his playing time has increased. But Nani has also improved his Minutes per Goal in each of the past four seasons, now scoring a goal for every 264′ he’s on the pitch in the EPL. While his shooting accuracy has dipped slightly from last season, the fact that he is converting 16% of his chances mitigates the extra shot that ends up in the stands. What is remarkable is that Nani is only taking a shot on target every three halves, yet is still managing a goal every three matches. His three goals this term leave him on a pace for 10 goals or more, which would be his highest yield in the EPL. This comes without sacrificing his passing, crossing or dribbling as those numbers have remained constant or improved over the same time frame.
Defensively Nani has also made strides in certain aspects of his defensive game, making more challenges both on the ground and in the air, while winning them at a higher rate. While his propensity for being dribbled past remains, he has increased his number of interceptions per game over each of the past three years and remains on course to improve again this season.
This season it appears that he will not mark a fourth consecutive year of increased tackles, and overall his tackling appears to have gotten worse. While the numbers are still low enough that a single good game would cause a 5-10% swing, his minutes per tackle is the highest it has been in four seasons. This may be a reflection of his ability to disposses players initially by winning in the 50/50 balls as he is also on pace to allow the fewest opponents to dribble past him this season.
In all, Nani continues to refine and improve his play for Manchester United. Though he has not ever had a 20 goal season, or a 20 assist season, his ability to steadily provide goals and assists, withouth being a liability in any other phase of the game marks him as class. Manchester United currently find themselves marked for a difficult Premier League campaign, one where Nani could make all the difference.