When Manchester United confirmed the signing of Edinson Cavani on a free transfer last October, it’s fair to say there was by no means universal praise for the deal.
The announcement, which came on transfer deadline day, smacked of desperation to many. United hadn’t been able to sign their primary target, Jadon Sancho, but couldn’t face the prospect of heading into the new season without strengthening the frontline.
Granted, failing to add reinforcements wouldn’t have been a good look for the club, but Cavani’s signing wasn’t exactly much of a consolation in the eyes of supporters.
Doubts over his age, form during his final season at Paris Saint-Germain and the simple fact he was still without a club at the start of October all appeared to be valid concerns, particularly given his one-year deal (with the option for an extra 12 months) was a kind of short-termism not associated with the previous signings made by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
But such concerns quickly evaporated once he was fit, his class and striker’s instinct still undeniable as the Uruguayan gallops across the United attack as if he was still in his twenties.
In recent weeks Cavani’s form has hit another level and, for a while at least, it seemed a possibility that United were going to rue not signing him to a two-year deal, rumours of a move to Boca Juniors making officials at Old Trafford a little tense.
But on Monday, United confirmed Cavani will be staying put for another year at least, his renewal a just reward for an excellent first season in England.
Ryan Giggs played Premier League football into his forties, owing much of his longevity to conditioning aiding by yoga, as the story goes. Perhaps then Cavani’s seamless adaptation to the league isn’t as surprising as many have suggested.
After all, the 34-year-old is known to do yoga and ballet in an effort to keep himself fit and nimble, elements of his game that have certainly been notable this season, even after injury absences.
Of course, Solskjaer has been eager to restrict Cavani’s minutes, stressing early in the season that he didn’t want to put him under too much physical strain as he joined the club having not played competitively since March due to Ligue 1’s cancellation amid the coronavirus pandemic.
That approach has been adopted throughout the season, as demonstrated by Cavani’s 18 starts from 35 appearances, and it seems to have paid dividends as he’s really hit his stride since the start of April, scoring eight goals in seven appearances across all competitions.
This run has helped him to a minutes-per-goal ratio of 124.1. The only Premier League forwards (five or more goals) who can better than are Gareth Bale (110.2 minutes per goal), Kelechi Iheanacho (110), Olivier Giroud (106.3) and Carlos Vinicius (97.7), though the latter’s record is clearly warped by a hat-trick he scored against non-league side Marine in January.
Anthony Martial still seemingly had credit from his form in the latter part of 2019-20 earlier this term, given Cavani was largely used as a backup option while the Frenchman was fit, but it’s difficult to see him getting his place back at the start of 2021-22 given what we know now.
After the Premier League’s resumption last season, Martial was one of the standout performers – his six goals from nine games was only bettered by Danny Ings, Harry Kane (both seven in nine), Michail Antonio (eight in nine) and Raheem Sterling (nine in nine).
It seemed that, finally, he was reaching the level many had expected of him when he joined from Monaco five years earlier. He’d seemingly cemented his place as United’s first-choice central striker and looked comfortable for arguably the first time since his first season.
But, prior to his injury, Martial had been underwhelming this term. It brought to light a theory previous speculated about: the idea that he doesn’t react well to competition. First there was Zlatan Ibrahimovic and then Romelu Lukaku. He outlasted both, found his niche, and then, all of a sudden, Cavani arrives.
Only Martial knows what is to blame for his drop-off, but it’s undeniable that there has been one. His six non-penalty goals comes from an xG (expected goals) value of 9.7, meaning he was wasting more chances than the average player ordinarily would.
The fact that his xG per 90 minutes dropped from 0.42 to 0.36 shows the quality of chances coming his way weren’t as good, while last season he massively outperformed this, scoring 0.58 goals per game.
Before his injury this season, Martial was averaging just 0.26 goals every 90 minutes, highlighting his wastefulness or a perhaps lack of confidence – it’s certainly not down to playing a different role, as he averaged the same amount of touches in the box (6.9 per 90 mins) as in 2019-20.
When we bring Cavani into the equation, the data shows how much of a gulf there is between the two with regards to their ability to make chances with clever movement, or instinct.
Cavani’s xG per game of 0.64 is a significant improvement on Martial, and he’s even outperforming that (0.73 goals per 90 mins), finding the net almost three times as frequently as the France international.
“He [Cavani] has got all the attributes of a top-class footballer and human being,” Solskjaer said last November. “He’s had a great career, scored goals wherever he has been. He’s so professional, meticulous with his preparation, with his recovery, what he does at mealtimes, before the game, during the game.
“But also to have a focal point in the box is important for us because we’ve not really had that since Romelu [Lukaku] left.”
And there lies a key issue: Solskjaer seems to have accepted Martial cannot play that role. You have to wonder whether he’ll get another opportunity.
Facilitating the succession
In the eyes of most United fans, if any of their current forwards are the long-term heir to Cavani in the central role, it’s Mason Greenwood.
Granted, the jury may still be out on him in that position, but his ability in front of goal would suggest he is the best man for the job, particularly given he’s showing that quality at such a young age.
2020-21 hasn’t been the easiest of seasons for him. He had to cope with the death of a close friend and was at the centre of controversy while away on international duty with England.
But since the start of April he’s scored five times in the Premier League, a haul bettered by no one. It’s form that’s reminiscent of his breakthrough campaign in 2019-20, when he scored 10 league goals from an xG value of just 2.9. Excluding penalties, no player in the division could rival such a differential.
Figures like that are rarely sustainable because they suggest either a player’s been extremely lucky, they’re remarkably good, or perhaps a combination of both. After all, Greenwood scored just once from an xG of 2.7 between the start of this season and the end of March.
But his recent purple patch has seen him score three goals more than he’d be expected to (1.95 xG). He’s finding his feet again, and another season learning alongside Cavani can surely only benefit Greenwood in the long run.
The one area of Greenwood’s game that has been questioned in rare opportunities through the middle is his off-the-ball movement, arguably Cavani’s greatest strength.
There’s no question Cavani is an asset to United in terms of his on-field ability – the data proves just how effective he’s been, but his importance goes beyond that.
Greenwood is probably the best talent to come out of the United academy since Paul Pogba, and if some of Cavani’s wisdom rubs off him over a two-year period together, what a player he could become.
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