Edinson Cavani was the luckiest signing of the summer transfer window.
After a drawn-out and ultimately embarrassing attempt at signing Jadon Sancho, acquiring the Uruguayan on deadline day seemed like a hopeless attempt from Ed Woodward and co to save face. It had all the signs of being Mk II of Radamel Falcao’s ill-fated spell at Manchester United.
That criticism, it turns out, was unfair and misplaced. Cavani was averaging better than a goal every other game in Ligue 1 despite his limited minutes for PSG during the 2019/20 season. He had some injury issues, but his goal-scoring remained elite. It’s perhaps why PSG sporting director Leonardo admitted that letting their club’s all-time top scorer leave on a free transfer was a mistake.
More than this, Cavani fits ideally within the Manchester United squad. He’s the club’s only pure number nine and has a level of experience that would be useful in the development of other players such as Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, and Mason Greenwood. So while United can take little credit for his success so far, given the last-minute nature of his signature, they can consider themselves lucky that Cavani just so happened to fit the club’s squad very well.
The Uruguayan is equally well-suited to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s tactical approach. United are a side characterized by their ability to attack in transition, with a positionally fluid forward line that’s given the license to express themselves instinctively rather than adhere to highly-structured attacking patterns.
Cavani complements this set-up well. He may not have the same speed he once did, but he is still capable of making runs in behind. Having played on the left at times during his PSG tenure, he is comfortable interchanging with Martial, Rashford, and Greenwood to make the United attacking line harder to mark in offensive transition.
Cavani also excels at controlling shots while on the run, and the minimal backlift on his shot means he can take chances quickly on the break. He can also serve as a focal point to start counters, using his strength to hold up the ball before laying it off to a midfielder in space. All these qualities make Cavani a potent force on the counter.
He also benefits from Solskjaer’s rather laissez-faire approach in attack to an extent, because it allows him to maximize his best attribute: off-the-ball movement.
— Manchester United (@ManUtd) February 2, 2021
Cavani excels at making runs in the box, usually at different speeds and in different directions. These runs rarely occur in straight lines, instead curving in various ways. At times, he even makes runs in zig-zag shapes, frantically stopping and starting as he moves from side to side in the penalty area. These varied movements are meant to deceive opposition markers and allow Cavani to find space in the box.
There are certain runs that he seems to favor. He will often, for instance, start on the right side of a defender and make a run all the way around them to their left side. The former Napoli man will often start in an offside position and make curved runs in the direction of the ball. The idea behind it is that the defensive line will push closer to their own goal when a ball is played in and that Cavani will be able to get to the ball ahead of defenders because of his advanced starting position. It’s a risky approach, but one that can still be effective.
Cavani’s trademark, however, is his near-post runs. He’s incredibly quick to recognize when a ball will be delivered in the box, and will almost instinctively dash towards the near-post. More often than not, he arrives ahead of his defenders in these areas and is able to amass high-quality chances. If the ball isn’t delivered into the near-post, Cavani still creates space elsewhere in the penalty area by dragging a defender with him.
While this type of movement is useful for any team utilizing any tactical setup, Solskjaer’s lack of rigid attacking instruction — for all the faults it may have — allows Cavani to make these runs as he sees fit. The Uruguayan can rely on his experience and nous to choose when and where to run, arguably the best way to utilise his skillset.
The data supports the idea that Cavani contributes significantly to the United attack:
As the table above shows, he has the highest non-penalty expected goals per 90 of any Manchester United striker. Part of that is due to his aforementioned movement, and the fact that the other three forwards have been used out wide at times also contributes to it. However, much of that difference is because Cavani is a more complete goal-scorer than the other United attackers. His aerial ability and predatory instincts mean he is capable of being dangerous from more situations than United’s other forwards. He also takes more shots per 90 than the other strikers, another reason why he has a higher xG figure.
Cavani averages less shot-creating actions than every other Man United striker, and while he marginally averages the most expected assists, that’s likely unsustainable and more of a reflection of a few games at the start of his Premier League career where he recorded unusually high xA values. This makes sense because Cavani doesn’t involve himself in build-up heavily. He doesn’t have the silky dribbling, passing ability, or explosive pace that Greenwood, Martial, and Rashford all have to varying degrees, which is why they create more shots for others.
As mentioned previously, he can drift wide and drop off to interchange with the other forwards. But he usually doesn’t do much with the ball, instead laying it off to others and making runs into space to try and disrupt the opposition defensive structure. Especially at this stage of his career, he prefers to be a penalty-box striker.
Edinson Cavani is one game from surpassing the number of all competition minutes he managed for PSG last season. He surpassed total league minutes last week against Arsenal. During 2019/20 Cavani suffered four separate injuries. A risky one turned out to be a smart signing.
— The Tactical Times (@Tactical_Times) February 2, 2021
What’s perhaps most surprising given his age is that Cavani averages the most pressures and successful pressures of any Man United striker. He channels the same relentlessness he exhibits in his attacking movement to his defensive contribution. Whether it’s contributing to United’s high-press or tracking back and pressuring midfielders from behind, Cavani is an active and effective presence defensively.
He may not have been Man United’s main target, but Edinson Cavani has proved to be an excellent acquisition for them. He occupies a unique role in Solskjaer’s squad and has translated his goal-scoring excellence to English football with relative ease. Whether his contribution will be enough to propel the Red Devils to a first Premier League title in the post-Ferguson era, however, remains to be seen.