An analysis of Samir Nasri and how he could fit in at Manchester United

Is Samir Nasri on his way to Old Trafford? (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

After spending roughly £50 million to acquire the services of David De Gea, Ashley Young, and Phil Jones in the past month, it is no secret what commodity Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson seeks to finish off his summer shopping spree - a midfield maestro. The transfer saga has seen the likes of Wesley Sneijder and Luka Modric, amongst others, linked to United - the latest of this ilk has been Arsenal FC's Samir Nasri. Reports have varied in the past few days; some claim an offer of £20 million by United has been rejected by the North London club while others claim no offer has been placed. Either way, this seems like a prudent time to analyze the French playmaker and to project how might he fit in at Old Trafford if he does indeed head north. 

Introduction

Nasri, who is of Algerian heritage, was brought up in Marseille and naturally, the comparisons to Zinedine Zidane began as his talent became apparent. By the age of nine, he started his career with Olympique de Marseille and spent the remainder of his youth developing at the club's youth academy. Despite failing to earn a spot on France's 2010 World Cup squad, Nasri has competed for the French national team at each level. He made his first professional debut for Marseille in September 2004 at the age of 17 in a Ligue 1 match versus Sochaux. In what is generally typical of a young player that is considered to be arguably world-class, or certainly near it, he experienced a meteoric rise and he was sold to Arsenal in the summer of 2008. Nasri showed flashes of brilliance during his opening two seasons in the Premier League, however, it was during this past one where he had his breakthrough season - one in which he was shortlisted for the PFA Player of the Year award. 

Skillset & past roles

When the discussion of Nasri comes up, the superlatives follow - inventive, creative, imaginative, explosive, snood-errific, etc. But to use more simple terms, and perhaps more practical, when describing his technical ability, the Frenchman exhibits vision, spatial awareness, genuine two-footed ability on the ball, and a wide range of passing. If you combine that with his pace, the summation of this might be what current Marseille manager Didier Deschamps refers to as "fantasy" - something he claimed that United were without last season (FC Porto is fully aware of this "fantasy" --must see goal!). 

In the early part of his career at Marseille, Nasri's role varied - whether it be on the flanks, playing as a deeper-lying central midfielder, or even as a substitute. At that time, he was not considered to have sufficient enough bulk nor the clinical finishing ability to play higher up through the middle. As the Frenchman steadily progressed, and as Marseille saw the departure of Frank Ribery, Nasri began to play higher up the pitch as the focal point in attack. This ultimately resulted in his most influential season for his local club  - the tangible results being 6 goals and 15 assists.

Injury and fluctuations of form plagued Nasri during his first two seasons at Arsenal. However, his technical ability, understanding of space, and intelligent movement made him a natural fit for Arsene Wenger's fluid 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 system. Nasri showed quality on either flank and also as a central attacking midfielder. This versatility, in combination with Arsenal's interchangeability, is what many observers at times described as "unpredictable" in regards to Nasri and his side's attack. 

Analysis of Nasri's 2010-11 season

Once again during this past campaign, Nasri showed his versatility. Arsenal's Cesc Fabregas remains first-choice in attack through the middle, however, Nasri did well to deputise for the injury-prone captain throughout the season. While only making three starts in the center, mostly at the season's beginning, Nasri often shifted over from the flanks to the middle during matches due to either tactical changes or simple substitutions - in total, he spent ~445 minutes (stoppage time makes this an estimate) there. In comparison, he made 25 starts in the wider areas of the pitch and played a total of ~2,079 min there. In a more specific breakdown, Nasri played ~945 minutes on the left and ~1,134 minutes on the right. 

Central Midfield:

Quite frankly, this sample size is too limited to come up with any definitive conclusions in assessing Nasri in the center of the pitch. Nonetheless, let's examine the numbers that do we have:

Minutes

~445

Passes Completed (PC)

290

PC %

82%

PC per 90 minutes

59

Interceptions (INT)

4

INT per 90 minutes

0.8

Tackles Won(TKL)

23

TKL per 90 minutes

4.65

There is nothing too particularly telling about these numbers but there a few points worth discussing. (1) Passing - the pass completed percentage and passes completed per 90 minutes are fairly standard for where Nasri plays when he's in the center of the pitch. When Nasri is in the middle third of the pitch, in a vertical sense, he is fairly tidy with his passing. But because he's an attacking midfielder that plays high, he is often asked to provide a killer final ball in order to unlock a defense in the attacking third - this is a riskier pass that will hinder one's passing percentage. More on this later though. (2) Interceptions - this is fairly low rate and even though the sample size is small, it hints that Nasri may not read the game well in the center when his side is out of possession. (3) Tackles - this is fairly standard. 

Let's examine a chalkboard from when Nasri played the entire match as a central attacking midfielder:

 by Guardian Chalkboards

This chalkboard further exhibits Nasri's tidy distribution through the middle third of the pitch. His passing is assured during the build-up in attack, which is often one-touch and deft, but he's clearly not afraid to try to unlock the defense with a direct or incisive pass in the final third of attack. In addition, the Frenchman's high positioning allows him to use the space between the lines - much of his passing here is generated from the area between the opposition's defense and midfield lines. This strongly hints at spatial awareness and intelligent movement. Furthermore, it can be seen that Nasri will often drift wide from the center and distribute from there. This further exemplifies smart movement in search of space but it also allows for another added benefit - if a defender from the middle follows him, it opens up space through the middle for a wide attacker or deeper midfielder to expose with a run there. If the defender does not follow Nasri to this wider area, he can combine with the wide attacker and/or full-back on that side and overrun the opposition there. Bottom line, in this role, this hints that Nasri is very good at linking play and creating chances in the role of a central playmaker. 

Let's examine now the numbers from the wider areas of the pitch - broken down by each flank, left and right:

 

LM

RM

Minutes

945

1,134

Passes Completed (PC)

480

653

PC %

82%

85%

PC per 90 minutes

46

52

Interceptions (INT)

17

12

INT per 90 minutes

1.6

0.9

Tackles Won (TKL)

30

43

TKL per 90 minutes

2.86

3.41

The overall pass completions are down a bit when compared to his role in the center - which is to be expected. However, the numbers are somewhat high for a wide player so again this hints that Nasri is strong at linking play. As for his defensive numbers, his tackles are a bit down which again is to be expected in wider areas but it is interesting to note that his interception rate is up. 

Let's now examine a chalkboard that show Nasri's passing as both a left-sided player and a right-sided player:

 by Guardian Chalkboards

Combining this chalkboard with the data that I have compiled, one can reasonably attempt to draw a few obvious conclusions. Perhaps the reason why his pass completed numbers are high for a wide player is because he naturally looks to come inside so much - Nasri is much more of a possession midfielder when deployed on the flanks than he is a natural winger. He also often makes diagonal runs towards the center of the pitch, which sometimes results in him on the opposite flank. This quote from Nasri in October of 2010 backs up much of what the evidence might be telling us - that he naturally may be a central player: 

"That's where I play best, that's how I was formed. In every age group at every level, I often played through the middle. I've been playing out wide for two years with Arsenal but feel more at ease in the centre of the pitch."

How would Nasri at United?

First of all, Fergie values versatility in his tactics - he's a fiddler. He has proven a master at adjusting his system to both the opposition and the personnel that he has at his disposal. While he has a range of tactics in terms of shape that allows for flexibility, he generally likes to unlock the defense through two constant areas of the pitch: (1) with wingers on the flanks. (2) a creator between the lines (e.g. Eric Cantona, a younger Paul Scholes, Wayne Rooney). 

As mentioned, Nasri can provide flexibility as a wide possession midfielder or as a central attacking midfielder - the latter is probably his natural position. If United decide to play more often in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid shape, which Fergie has often used in "big matches," then Nasri may be a natural fit in that system - Rooney would operate on the attack line as it's fulcrum or as a wide forward. This could be a dangerous United side with Michael Carrick sitting in front of the defense as a deep-lying playmaker while the third central midfielder could be an industrious player like Darren Fletcher or Anderson. This shape is generally used more often in Europe, but it may need to be used more domestically next season with the changes occurring at Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC. 

Where the concern lies with Nasri is how would he fare in a central midfield two? Does he have enough bite now to not make his side vulnerable in defense through that portion of the midfield? This is an important question because if United were to buy him, it would almost certainly be with him mostly as a central midfielder in mind. Nasri's reputation does not offer much optimism in this regard, but quite honestly, it is all speculation at this point. It is a role he could thrive in if partnered with a Fletcher, Anderson, or Carrick - or it is a role that would leave United exposed. No one would know for sure until it was tried.

Rooney's partnership with Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez was a thrilling success last season. Wazza even mentioned in interviews that his newfound role as withdrawn playmaker is the one that he currently enjoys most. This is similar space to where Nasri might like to occupy as well if he were to be deployed through the middle - this in turn is the second concern regarding Nasri - could he co-exist with the club's current talisman?

He could. But in the current time, it may need to be as a wide possession midfielder when Fergie uses a 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, or 4-2-3-1 shape. This could potentially be beneficial as well. Nasri, from his initial position on the flanks, does very well to combine with Arsenal's other playmakers - he could theoretically tear apart defenses when combining with Rooney with quick "one-twos" in attack. This could be further complemented if the opposite wide player plays more direct and stretches the defense. 

Conclusion

With Nasri's age (24-years-old), possibly (relative) cheap fee due to one-year remaining on his Arsenal contract, his ambition (he's stated in the media recently his desire for silverware), his versatility, and his obvious talent, this could end up being the buy that delivers Fergie one last European Cup before he departs off into the retirement sunset. If he were to come to Old Trafford, there may be some initial growing pains due to system fit and competition, but if he's the player, both in talent and mental fortitude that he's hyped up to be, then this could be a coup. The (legitimate) questions remain if he's a system fit for United - Lionel Messi's experience with the Argentina national team highlights this importance no matter one's talent - but the rewards may outweigh the risks. In certain systems and circumstances, the Frenchman could thrive in a central role next season for United - either way, if he were to head north, it is his versatility that could buy him time. Nasri's ability to unlock defenses with with a killer final ball is what might enable Fergie to unlock the keys to Europe one last time with one killer final buy. 

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