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Edinson Cavani

Manchester United, 2020–

In swapping Paris for Manchester, Edinson Cavani has gone from competing for selection with Kylian Mbappé, Neymar and Mauro Icardi, to challenging Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford. Among the world’s most prolific and consistent goalscorers of the past decade, in the summer of 2020, Cavani finally made a move to the Premier League that has been talked up as a possibility for a significant portion of his career.

Arriving at Old Trafford at the age of 33, Cavani might be a little past his peak, but he is still the kind of natural centre-forward Manchester United have lacked since Romelu Lukaku left for Inter Milan a year earlier. Potent and fluid though Greenwood, Martial and Rashford may consistently be, there have been occasions when United would have benefitted from a physically stronger striker who capable of holding the ball up in the final third. They now have that in Cavani. “He has been a great influence and had a great impact,” said United’s manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He is improving everyone (around him) as well, but he still has a few years left in him. He is a meticulous profesional. His habits and everything he does shows you about why he has had the career he has had.He is still one of the fittest players we have got.”

Tactical analysis
Cavani operates similarly to a traditional number nine, occupying the spaces close to the opposition’s central defenders, and he thrives in an advanced central position. During his time with PSG, 93 per cent of his league goals were scored from inside the width of the six-yard box – the ability to find space to attack balls in this area represents one of his major strengths.

He moves with intelligence, and his ability to understand and adapt to his surroundings, and therefore instinctively detect the best positions to move into is one of the most impressive aspects to his game. When possession is being built in defence, Cavani will start in an offside position to gain an advantage over his likely markers. This leads to him regularly being well placed to reach the ball ahead of his marker once a teammate has penetrated the opposition in a wider position as he has a head start on his opponents (below).

He often looks to make runs in behind opponents and is skilled at timing a curved run to get back into an onside position before sprinting towards goal. However, now in the latter years of his career, he has lost a little of the pace that made him so effective in Napoli’s wonderful counter-attacking team under Walter Mazzarri in the early part of the 2010s, and he is less of a threat in behind as a result.

He is still a consistently superb finisher, though, and he also uses his six-foot frame to impose himself against physical defenders and provide an aerial threat. He is adept at using his body to help secure possession against an opponent before rolling them and working an opportunity to shoot at goal.

He tends to shoot with power, using his laces rather than his instep, and needs minimal back lift to generate power in his shots. He uses his momentum when sprinting to gather more pace on his shots; he is very skilled when it comes to keeping his shots under control when running at full tilt.

Role at Manchester United
Among a group of young, energetic and fast forwards in Martial, Rashford, Greenwood and Daniel James, Cavani offers something different. Despite Lukaku’s departure in August 2019, goals did not dry up too much at United. However, Solskjaer’s team has sometimes appeared too one-dimensional, with Martial – not a traditional centre-forward by any stretch – chosen most frequently to lead the line and counter-attacks proving the most common route to goal. When teams sat back against them and they needed more presence in the centre-forward position, United struggled.

Cavani was once a real threat carrying a counter-attack forward, but he has been happy to adapt his role at United for the benefit of others and play with his back to goal more than he did at previous clubs. His arrival has allowed Martial to start in a wide forward role – generally considered his best position – and it is the Frenchman and Rashford who provide runs in behind once Cavani has secured possession. Without Cavani, there have been times where United have struggled to get both Martial and Rashford, their two quickest forwards, running in behind. Cavani has created more opportunities for that to happen (above).

Cavani can hold play up more effectively than any other United forward and is also better than any of them with his back to goal. He does a good job of retaining possession when under pressure from a defender, and he is happy to come deep to drag a defender out of position and create space for Rashford and Martial to break into. After moving to link play, often by setting the ball to a forward-facing midfield teammate, Cavani will turn and sprint to catch play up. He still has a lot of the pace that made him such a threat on the break at Napoli, and he will do everything he can to ensure there is a presence in the penalty area to attack any crosses (below).

He provides a greater aerial threat than Solskjaer’s other options up front, and makes clever runs across defenders to get on the end of balls into the box. As his aforementioned record at PSG shows, he is brilliant at working himself a chance close to goal, and he also rarely wastes a good opportunity to score.

There were some doubts as to how much worth there was in United signing a player who had hinted that retirement was a possibility when PSG decided to let his contract run down. However, Cavani has shown there is plenty of life left in him yet, and in doing so he has proved Solskjaer right for bringing him to Old Trafford.

Edinson Cavani

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