How Manchester United’s gamble on Edinson Cavani beat the odds

The signing of the season that almost didn’t happen has contributed to well more than just United’s ambitions

Melissa Reddy
Senior Football Correspondent
Wednesday 12 May 2021 07:27
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<p>Manchester United striker Edinson Cavani</p>

Manchester United striker Edinson Cavani

It is quite the trip to revisit assessments from October 2020, when Manchester United ended the transfer window without primary target Jadon Sancho, wrapping up business with a panicked deadline-day punt on 33-year-old Edinson Cavani.

His recruitment, seven months after the Uruguay international had last played a competitive game, left many of Europe’s leading agents and sporting directors perplexed. 

The timing and nature of the free transfer was at odds with the “cultural reset” the club had preached at every opportunity. 

Cavani’s ability wasn’t questioned - this was a man that scored a combined 341 goals in 556 games for Palermo, Napoli and Paris Saint-Germain, to sit alongside 50 goals in 116 appearances for Uruguay - but his age, injury record, salary demand, and the late nature of the move was described by one prominent transfer fixer as “shades of Radamel Falcao.”

That description captured the soundtrack of the time. Gary Neville alluded to it, concluding he didn’t think Cavani “was part of the plan.” A few days before the deal was announced, Monchi, Sevilla’s man with the golden touch in the market, had wondered how United could possibly strategise medium to long-term without a director of football. 

Rather than not specifically being convinced by Cavani, no one seemed quite convinced by the club’s belief in and their handling of the signing. 

That was not an unfair position given the pedigreed striker, personally offered to United, was on the market for an age but they had been distancing themselves from him as far back as the winter window.

Even in the week leading up to the official announcement, there was little inclination from the Old Trafford side to reach an agreement. As hopes of Sancho faded, efforts were focused on securing Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembele and only when all avenues were exhausted did Cavani come into play. 

If United weren’t totally sold on him, how could anyone else have been? It was low-risk recruitment given the absence of a sizeable fee, the length of his contract - one year with the option of a further 12 months - and the player’s elite experience and exemplary attitude.

Unlike Falcao and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the other signing he’s often compared to, Cavani wasn’t being drafted in to start every week. Still, very few if any felt it was a no-brainer and neither Manchester City nor Liverpool - famed for their transfer acumen - would have plumped for such an option. 

Seven months on, there is no true candidate to rival Cavani as the signing of the season. United’s status as City’s closest domestic challengers and their place in the Europa League final is owed in big part to his blend of fight and finishing finesse.

The club’s work in getting him to agree a one-year extension and the celebratory manner in which the confirmation was greeted by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, his team-mates and supporters, spoke of a forward whose contribution has superseded his crafty 15 goals and five assists across all competitions.

That direct action has added gloss to United’s campaign, while his more understated attributes have furthered a true team ethos that hasn’t always been a theme at Old Trafford. 

Cavani, despite his bulging trophy count, three century goal haul and lengthy time spent tormenting defences on multiple elite stages, arrived in Manchester without an ego. 

United wasn’t a backdrop to grow his brand, swell his bank balance or an opportunity to take centre stage. The player Jorge Valdano tagged as having “generous endeavour” as a “striker who covers the entire pitch” has illustrated his spirit of selflessness. 

Having often operated in the shadows of more headline stars - Neymar, Zlatan, Ibrahimovic at PSG, Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez for Uruguay - Cavani’s approach has always been team-orientated. 

United have craved such a figure with such a CV. There has been some scoffing at Solskjaer’s highlighting of Marcus Rashford, and Mason Greenwood in particular, sponging off Cavani’s supreme understanding of movement, anticipation, positioning and finishing. 

Sure, both players have been taught those art forms and have enacted it, but they are now privy to live tutorials during training and high-pressured match situations from a thoroughbred. It is indisputable that Cavani has greatly improved the attack as well as United’s intensity.

Edinson Cavani transformed United’s season

“He runs almost 12km per match,” Solskjaer said. “He chases the centre back down every time, he is hard-working and humble. He has given a lesson to every single one of us.”

When Cavani’s switch to United was announced, Forlan deduced that “Edinson will show his conduct and way of doing things, his professionalism, the way he works hard and trains.

“It will be his conduct that other players can watch and learn from.”

He was correct. The only blemish during Cavani’s time in England has been a three-match FA ban for using the word “negrito” when responding to a message of congratulations from a friend on Instagram.

The player’s father, Luis, revealed in March that he was so unhappy at the sanction, he wanted to leave Manchester to “play in South America.”

Solskjaer, the squad, and the overflow of affection from supporters, who have yet to witness him from the terraces in their club shirt, twisted Cavani’s arm. 

The marksman who United were close to not signing at all, who has been the standout acquisition of the campaign, has another year to be their golden thread: hard-runner, super-presser, link king, goalscorer and tutor.

It’s hard not to imagine what would have been if he’d had those extra months to bed in - allowing him to swerve quarantine and have the benefit of a full pre-season - when the club were turning down blind alleys.

That Cavani was rushed in, isolated for two weeks, and had to work overtime to catch up fitness-wise, but still managed to imprint himself so successfully on United is a credit to his commitment.

There is an overwhelming amount of people who take, take, take from football. Cavani, by some welcome contrast, is a giver.

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