The Importance Of Edinson Cavani

Owing to fitness issues due to Quarantine and not playing much football in the last few months, Edinson Cavani had to wait before he could get his first start for Manchester United since his free transfer on deadline day. While most fans were frustrated by another underwhelming transfer window, Cavani was welcomed at the club with open arms and there was a lot of curiosity on how this transfer may pan out. United fans were put out of their misery when the Uruguayan finally made his first start in the 4-1 win against Istanbul Basaksehir at Old Trafford last week. Cavani didn’t score but he was the most influential player on the pitch, constantly on the move, pressing defenders and expertly linking up play. The signs were promising. 

The Red devils then travelled to the south coast to face Southampton, a tricky tie away from home. United went 2-0 down at half time thanks to some James Ward-Prowse magic which spurred Solskjaer to bring on Cavani at half-time to try and turn the tide. Funnily, Cavani was late to step onto the pitch as he apparently had the wrong boots on. But once he stepped on the pitch, it was clear he was wearing the right boots. He whipped in a cross for Bruno Fernandes to score the first goal past the impressive Alex McCarthy. A few minutes later, Cavani put himself on the scoresheet via a diving header from a deflected shot. And then in stoppage time, The 33 year old scored his second to complete the comeback and give Manchester United the 3 points. It may have taken a while, but ‘El Matador’ had finally arrived at Manchester United. 

Today, we dive deeper into the Uruguayan’s career and what makes him such a good striker. 

Career History

Born in northwestern Uruguay, Cavani first earned accolades after impressing for Uruguay in the 2007 South American Youth Championships. This prompted many top clubs to take a closer look at him. Eventually, it was Palermo who gave him his move to Europe in 2007. He scored 34 times for Palermo encouraging Walter Mazzarri to buy Cavani for Napoli at the start of 2009/10 season. 

Cavani’s Napoli career was a revelation. Along with fellow teammates Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi, Cavani helped the Partenopei propel from a mid table Serie A side to Champions League regulars. He scored 33 goals in each of his first two seasons, including the winning goal in the Coppa Italia final against Juventus which brought Napoli silverware glory for the first time in over 20 years. He managed to score 20+ goals for 3 consecutive seasons in Serie A, a feat managed only by Gabriel Batistuta and Antonio Di Natale in the past. 

In 2013, it became apparent that Cavani would be moving away from the club and reportedly, Manchester United CEO Ed Woodward was keen on signing the Uruguayan. Sir Alex Ferguson had just retired and David Moyes was at the helm. Moyes liked the idea of having Cavani at the club which led to discussions and talks with his agent. Cavani, only 26 at the time, would’ve been more than happy to move to England. However, David Moyes went to watch Cavani 3 times and was unimpressed with what he saw. Ed Woodward still wanted to sign Cavani but Moyes refused which led to Cavani joining his teammate Lavezzi in moving to the French capital. 

PSG, at the time, were just starting to splash the cash in order to build a team capable of winning the Champions League. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva were already at the club, and Cavani and Lavezzi were added to the list of elusive signings the Paris-based club would make over the coming years. Ibrahimovic being the main man meant Cavani would play from the left, but that didn’t stop El Matador from scoring goals. He continued his goalscoring form by crossing the 20 goal mark in each of his first 3 seasons before PSG went through a lot of changes in 2016. Ibrahimovic and Blanc left the club, Neymar was still at Barcelona and Unai Emery was hired as manager. The following season was the one in which Cavani was the main striker at the club. He scored 49 goals in 50 appearances across all competitions with 35 of them being in the league which won him the golden boot. An impressive return, the transition was something similar to how Karim Benzema came into his own when Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid. 

But, PSG were knocked out in the Champions League Round of 16 and finished second to Kylian Mbappe’s high-flying Monaco which led to PSG signing Mbappe and Neymar for a combined fee of 357 million pounds the following season. Tensions started to rise when Neymar and Cavani were seen fighting over who would take the penalty duties at the club leading to rumours of a rift between the Brazilian and the Uruguayan. But Cavani was not a diva so he didn’t complain at all, something that has been synonymous with him throughout his career- He always kept the team before himself. 

The 19/20 season was Cavani’s lowest in his career. He started only 7 Ligue 1 games and his year was marred with injuries. PSG decided not to renew his contract and signed the younger Mauro Icardi on a permanent deal after a successful loan spell at the club. In fact, Cavani did not travel with the rest of the PSG squad to Portugal to complete the remaining Champions League games as his contract at the club was almost over. Cavani didn’t want to risk one last move to a top European club due to injuries and it turned out to be the right decision. Cavani was set to join Benfica on a free transfer but the Portugese club could not put together a financial package to bring the Uruguayan to Liga NOS. In the end, Manchester United got their man and even though it’s early signs, it looks like a good deal. 

Tactical Analysis

The one thing that Cavani is recognised the most by is his terrific off-the-ball movement. His attacking movement and positional sense is what makes him such a great striker. Yes, he has a reputation of missing easy chances and sometimes he takes multiple attempts to score but he is able to create those many chances for himself due to his excellent movement. Cavani is always on the move, he wants to be on the end of every pass, every cross, and every long ball. 

It is also very evident in the two goals he scored vs Southampton 

Here, you can see how Cavani is the only one making a move from both the teams as Bruno Fernandes takes a shot from the edge of the box. Cavani’s movement is based on the off chance of getting an easy tap-in from a rebound or a deflection. 

And that is exactly what happens. Fernandes’ shot is deflected and it falls nicely for the Uruguayan to head it in. 

In the second goal, as soon as Rashford gets in a crossing position, Cavani makes a near post run catching Vestergaard by surprise. Rashford finds him with an inch-perfect cross which ends up being the winning goal to complete Manchester United’s comeback. 

Whoscored.com lists Headed attempts as one of Cavani’s strengths but says Aerial duels are one of his weaknesses. Yet, he scores most of his goals from headers. In the calendar year 2019, Cavani had an xG of 5.20 after crosses and also scored 4 headed goals. In fact, the two headed goals he scored against Southampton were the most any Manchester United player has scored since 2018/19.  His movement enables him to get away from the defenders and find free spaces in the penalty box. 

In this image, Kurzawa receives the ball wide left. Cavani makes a fake run towards the inside making the defender commit to marking that area leaving a lot of space behind. 

As soon as there is a possibility of a cross, Cavani attacks the free space left behind by the defender and as the defender has already committed to marking the central area, he is late in tracking Cavani’s run. 

Look at how far Cavani has pulled away from the defender. He gets a lot of free space and expertly heads in the cross. 

His movement is only one aspect of his on-field game though. Cavani has excellent hold-up and link-up play. He brings the wingers and the midfielders in the game through his link up and hold up play. He had a 72% pass completion rate in the penalty area in the Ligue 1 last season. His excellent passing and hold-up play coupled with his brilliant movement also helps him drag defenders away towards him enabling other players to attack that free space and score goals. 

At 33 years of age, El Matador may be past his best but his experience and mentorship will help the young Manchester United attack line a lot. His strengths are exactly the traits Rashford, Martial and Greenwood have lack. 

“He will bring energy, power and leadership. But most importantly, he will bring goals” was what Solskjaer said on Manchester United’s acquisition of Edinson Cavani and that is exactly what Cavani brings to this team. 

Marcus Rashford and Half-spaces

When Manchester United welcomed the Danish side FC Midtjylland at Old Trafford in 2016 for their second leg tie in the Europa League Round of 32, the then United manager, Louis van Gaal was down to bare bones in the attack department. Injuries to senior attacking players such as Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young meant the only striker fit enough to start was Anthony Martial. 18 year-old Marcus Rashford occupied a place on the bench, but an injury to Anthony Martial in the warmup meant that Marcus Rashford would make his full first team debut. The Englishman scored twice on his debut en route to a 5-1 win for Manchester United. Rashford also scored twice in his first full Premier League debut 3 days later against Arsenal and hasn’t looked back ever since. 

Marcus Rashford, when he first came into the side, was what could be regarded as an explosive striker. Running and going past defences with his blistering pace and dribbling, the 18 year-old was direct and took no prisoners. Rashford scored 7 goals in 13 appearances in all competitions in that breakthrough season, cementing his place in the first team for Manchester United that won the FA cup.

Then came Jose Mourinho and the Portugese never saw Rashford as his main no.9 and the signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Romelu Lukaku in consecutive seasons only backed Mourinho’s claim. In the 2016/17 season, in a fully fit squad, Rashford usually played on the left although he did play as a striker whenever the main striker was injured. As time went by, it became largely evident that Marcus Rashford’s best position was playing on the left and not through the middle. 

Even though Mourinho found the position in which Rashford has since excelled, the Portugese was very shrewd in giving him minutes on the pitch. Rashford made more appearances from the bench rather than from the get-go. In the 2017/18 season, Rashford made 35 appearances in the Premier League but 18 of them were from the bench. He played only 1792 minutes in the whole campaign. Alexis Sanchez’s arrival in January 2018 resulted in Rashford dropping down the pecking order. 

Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Marcus Rashford has truly begun to excel. Playing mainly from the left this season, the 22 year old has scored 17 goals in the Premier League, already his best ever goal scoring return and 10 more than compared to when he played on the left under Mourinho in the 2017/18 season. Not limited to goalscoring output, his xG per 90 has improved as well from 0.28 to 0.57. 

Both managers played him on the left wing, and both primarily preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation. So what has changed? How has his goal output improved so much in the same position?

Of course, one could argue that it’s nothing but a case of a young player maturing, and for some part, it is. But, Solskjaer has made a small tactical tweak to Rashford’s positioning in the build-up and link-up play which has made the majority of the difference. That being, Rashford being deployed into half-spaces instead of playing out wide on the left. That has made a difference in 3 aspects of his game.

1.Proximity to goal

Firstly, he is closer to the goal and the main striker, Anthony Martial. Under Mourinho, the closest player to the main striker was usually the attacking midfielder, more often than not, Jesse Lingard. Mourinho deployed Lingard to act as a secondary striker, linking up with Lukaku and finding spaces in and around the box. Solskjaer shifted the onus of the no.10 from scoring goals to more of a playmaking role. By shifting Rashford in the half-spaces, Ole has allowed him to act as a secondary striker. These are Marcus Rashford’s heatmaps for the 17/18 and the 19/20 season.

As it is evident to see, Rashford is occupying the Left sided half spaces a lot more as compared to 17/18 where he’s mostly occupying the wider areas. Being in these areas has allowed him to be closer to goal and Martial and his link-up with the Frenchman has been the cornerstone of many of the attacks that Manchester United have structured this season. 

Here, Martial occupies the striker position, Rashford tucks into the half-space to be closer to Martial. This enables Luke Shaw to get into the space left by Rashford and become an enticing passing option for Lindelof (on the ball) for a crossfield pass. 

Instead, Lindelof passes it to Mata on the right wing, who cuts in and crosses to Rashford, still occupying the half space. Rashford completes his far post run and scores past Tim Krul in the goal. 

Switch to another move, where Rashford occupying the half space and being close to Martial, helps the no.10 (Pereira in this case) drop deeper to get the ball and release the runners. In this case, Wan Bissaka receives the ball from Pereira, who makes a great forward run and crosses for Rashford who continues his same run in the left hand side half-space and scores. 

2.Positional interchange with striker

Secondly, Rashford operating the half space has allowed him to constantly interchange positions with Martial and the understanding between the duo has been one of the key reasons for both playing well this season. Their link-up was clear to see in the 3rd goal that Manchester United scored at Carrow road this season.   

3.Pressing centrally

Lastly, Rashford’s pressing awareness has improved a lot this season as well. He mainly presses in the half spaces, attempting to cut off the right sided centre back’s supply to the right back and the defensive mid. This forces the centre back to pass it back to his keeper or his defence partner. Even if the ball gets to the fullback or to the defensive mid, Rashford is quick to change direction and press depending on where the ball is played.

In this situation, Rashford presses Schar who looks to pass in the middle. He misplaces his pass which ends up to Greenwood, who darts ahead and scores a sensational goal. 

Jose Mourinho’s tactics didn’t allow Rashford to express himself. The Portugese has always associated himself with having a strong no.9 – A focal point whose hold up play, physical strength and ability to play in runners are the best traits. Rashford was never that player – far from it as he isn’t even a proper no.9. 

Another aspect which has had an effect on Rashford excelling is Solskjaer’s counter attacking set up. Under Mourinho, the two players exempted from tracking back and staying forward for counter attacks were the striker and the attacking midfielder, more often than not, Romelu Lukaku and Jesse Lingard. Solskjaer’s set up while not having the ball is quite the opposite. He insists on the attacking midfielder dropping deeper and helping the midfield while the front 3, most recently Martial, Rashford and Greenwood stay forward for United to counter attack with blistering pace. 

It is no surprise that Jesse Lingard had his best season under Mourinho where the attacking midfielder had the role of a secondary striker and has struggled under Solskjaer due to the attacking midfielder having more playmaking duties. Similarly, Rashford has thrived in a system where he has been used as a secondary striker and been allowed to express himself more. 

Goal (Green)

Shot on post (yellow)

Saved shot (blue)

Blocked shot (purple)

Missed shot (red)

These are the shot maps of Marcus Rashford from the 17/18 season and the 19/20 season. It is clear to see that Rashford has matured a lot and is playing with real swagger and tenacity. 


Now, just allowing Marcus Rashford to operate in the half spaces isn’t the only reason for the improvement that the 22 year old has shown this season. Statistics show that Rashford is outperforming himself in almost every aspect of his game including passing, dribbling, shooting and pressing. This shows a real maturity in his game and how well Rashford is developing into becoming a complete player. This only bodes well for Manchester United going forward as the Englishman is going to be key for the rebuild that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the club have planned.

All in all, it is fair to say that Marcus Rashford has come a long way since his debut in 2016 and he is constantly improving at each stage of his career. The 22 year-old still has a long way to go, but his work ethic and the way he has adapted to tactics over the years only suggest that the Englishman is well on his way to becoming a truly world-class player.