When a young Portuguese winger arrived to Old Trafford from Sporting in the summer of 2007, it very much felt like a case of history repeating itself for Manchester United. Very good history, at that.
Luis Nani – better known simply as Nani – immediately arrived with a huge reputation when he signed from Sporting that summer, shadowing the footsteps of fellow Portuguese winger, and by this point world beater, Cristiano Ronaldo.
The parallels were perhaps lazy, but admittedly easy ones to draw and it was made even more romantic when Nani moved in with Ronaldo for a short period upon his arrival to Manchester. Surely United couldn’t do it again; as if plucking Ronaldo from Sporting and watching him blossom into a Ballon d’Or winner wasn’t enough, it looked like they might just have struck gold for a second time, in scarily similar settings.
When the 20-year-old rifled one home into the far corner on his debut in a preseason friendly for United, and followed it up with an impressive, acrobatic front flip in celebration, it was hard not to get excited. The Red Devils had another star on their hands.
Nani’s first season in England was a successful one. He finished the 2007/08 campaign with four goals and 14 assists in all competitions. His first Premier League goal just happened to be what would become a trademark – and perhaps a hindrance – to his game; a 30-yard screamer at Old Trafford against Spurs, capped off with that back flip celebration.
Capable of playing on either wing, Nani would continue to tot up appearances for the Red Devils and slowly build his reputation, occasionally scoring a screamer along the way or dazzling audiences with some sublime skill. With so much raw talent from the get go, he genuinely had all the tools to become a world class talent.
He managed six goals and four assists the following season, which was by no means a bad effort, but it certainly didn’t set the world alight as he had done previously.
When Ronaldo departed for Real Madrid in a then-world record deal in 2009, it was time for Nani to step up and become the Red Devils’ new star man.
But he didn’t quite manage it.
The number seven shirt was given to incoming free transfer Michael Owen for the 2009/10 season. And while that didn’t seem to bother Nani at all, it was quietly a reflection of the opinion that was slowly building around him. For as terrifyingly good as the Portugal international was on his day, those days were too few and far between.
For every good performance Nani seemed to give in a United shirt, several poor ones would follow. It made the tricky winger painfully frustrating to watch. The talent was there, but the consistency wasn’t, which meant he was never quite going to break into that next level of world class until it was.
His best season in a United shirt was yet to come however, as Nani bounced back and took the 2010/11 season by storm and was almost equally as good in the 11/12 campaign. For that period of roughly 12 to 18 months, he seemed to find a groove as a player and thus his most consistent run of form in a United shirt.
He managed nine goals and 19 assists in the 2010/11 campaign, famously setting up Wayne Rooney for his incredible overhead kick goal in the Manchester derby. His form was instrumental to United regaining the Premier League title, after losing the chance to make it four in a row by surrendering it to Chelsea in 2009/10.
This was about as good as it got for the Portuguese winger, and he never truly found those heights again. Like many at the time, Nani never quite managed to find his groove following the retirement of Ferguson in 2013 and quickly regressed at the club. He played a lesser role in Ferguson’s final season, and only featured 13 times in all competitions during that season under David Moyes.
Truth be told, Nani perhaps should’ve left United long before he actually did. He didn’t officially part ways with the club until 2015, but was finished as an asset there by 2012. It was then that he should’ve found pastures new and become the marquee man at a slightly smaller, but still talented and ambitious, club.
He moved to Turkey following his departure from United, which set the tone for the rest of his career. A solid season with Fenerbahce was enough to get him back into one of the top leagues with Valencia, but by this point he had passed his peak.
We’ll never know for sure, and perhaps neither will he, but if Nani wasn’t bound to the instant comparison to Ronaldo for so much of his early career at Manchester United then perhaps we’d hold the Portuguese winger in a much higher regard. He feels underappreciated, despite his drawbacks, and is still featuring and scoring regularly as captain of Orlando City in MLS at 33 years old.
He peaked far too soon and was limited by his own inconsistencies on the pitch far too often to ever be considered a true ‘great’, but it’s important to credit Nani accordingly. In that peak, he was a tricky winger with no fear and an unrelenting desire to create.. He contributed significantly to United’s success in the late 2000s and (very early) 2010s and was always a model professional.
Somehow a criminally underappreciated player, but also one who perhaps never got the absolute best out of his talents.