Assessing Whether Edinson Cavani Will Be Like Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Radamel Falcao at Man Utd

Man Utd have signed free agent striker Edinson Cavani | Xavier Laine/Getty Images

Manchester United signed veteran striker Edinson Cavani on transfer deadline day as part of a late attempt to salvage a largely disastrous summer window, during which months of ‘confidence’ tracking primary target Jadon Sancho achieved absolutely nothing.

United went into the summer wanting, above all, a winger. But also ideally a midfielder, left-back, centre-back and striker if the opportunities were there and the market would allow it.

Even though Sancho stayed at Borussia Dortmund thanks to a shambolic misjudgement of the German club’s repeated responses, they did just about manage to tick a few of the boxes, albeit mostly very late, and a new striker – Cavani – was among them.

Edinson Cavani is a Manchester United player! ✍️

— 90min (@90min_Football) October 5, 2020

There is no way of pretending that Cavani, who was available since July when he became a free agent, was anything more than a last ditch opportunistic capture. Given his age, it is also short-term only, but at least an improvement on Odion Ighalo, whose form has disappeared.

Whether or not Cavani will be a success at United is already a fierce debate. The club even has two polar opposite examples of similar big-name strikers from the relatively recent past: Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Radamel Falcao. But which is Cavani more likely to replicate in Manchester?

Neither Ibrahimovic nor Falcao were United players for very long, for different reasons. It is unlikely that Cavani will be much different and all three arrived at Old Trafford with a reputation as a world class goalscorer, but perhaps with their best days behind them.

There were doubts about Ibrahimovic when he first arrived at United, whether he could repeat his PSG form in the Premier League at his age, having never previously played in England. But the Swede was a huge success, scoring 28 goals in all competitions, the closest any United player has come to reaching the 30-goal milestone in a single campaign since Robin van Persie back in 2012/13.

Zlatan IbrahimovicZlatan Ibrahimovic scored 28 goals in his first season at Man Utd | Jan Kruger/Getty Images

It was only an ACL injury, the first serious injury of his career, that curtailed Ibrahimovic’s United career. He missed the end of the 2016/17 season and only featured a handful of times following his return to fitness in 2017/18 because the club had quickly moved on and signed Romelu Lukaku.

Regardless of how short his spell at Old Trafford was or how it ended on a disappointing note, Ibrahimovic is still remembered fondly by United fans and is deemed to have been a success.

Falcao, on the other hand, was anything but. The Colombian had been unplayable in the years preceding his 2014 arrival on loan, winning domestic and European trophies for both Porto and Atletico Madrid. Monaco then paid an enormous €60m for him in the summer of 2013.

However, an ACL injury struck Falcao down in January 2014. He raced through his recovery to try and be fit in time to play for Colombia at their first World Cup in 16 years, but he didn’t make it.

Radamel FalcaoRadamel Falcao looked short of fitness & confidence at Man Utd | Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Despite concerns over his fitness, the loan move to United that followed on summer deadline day 2014 still brought major excitement to fans in Manchester. That optimism quickly faded when it was clear that Falcao was lacking fitness and confidence in an alien environment. He got a few important early goals and assists, but his performances regressed as the season developed.

Things got even worse for Falcao when he joined Chelsea on a similar deal the following year and it took a fresh start back at parent club Monaco in 2016/17 to get his career back on track.

Cavani’s record is phenomenal. In 10 seasons between his arrival at Napoli in 2010 and his departure from PSG in 2020, he scored 304 goals, an average of marginally over 30 per season over a whole decade. At his very best, he got 89 in 98 appearances for PSG immediately after Ibrahimovic left. Unsurprisingly, he is hailed for his intelligent movement that puts him in the right place to score.

But will he match Zlatan’s impact at United or be another flop like Falcao?

There are certainly surface similarities between Cavani and Ibrahimovic, having both joined United as free agents after leaving PSG, with the latter 34 at the time of his 2016 arrival. They are also the two leading goalscorers in PSG history, a record Cavani took from Ibrahimovic.

But the circumstances are also quite different. Ibrahimovic joined on day one of the summer transfer window and partook in all of the pre-season preparations. He also spoke fluent English and had worked with then United manager Jose Mourinho before, enjoying great success under the coach.

On top of that, Ibrahimovic was in the form of his life, having just had his best ever season.

Cavani is not in that position. His late arrival means he has missed pre-season and has to jump straight in at the deep end, his English language skills are also thought to be limited and he obviously doesn’t have the benefit of having a pre-existing relationship with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

FBL-FRA-CUP-LYON-PSGCavani has had no pre-season and hasn’t played in 6 months | JEFF PACHOUD/Getty Images

As far as his recent form is concerned, Cavani’s final season at PSG was his worst in 12 years, yielding only seven goals in all competitions. Unlike Ibrahimovic, who was in remarkable physical shape for a player of his age, the Uruguayan has suffered several niggling injury complaints over the last couple of years that have significantly limited his number of appearances.

Further to that, Cavani has not actually played a game in six months because the 2019/20 French season was abandoned in March and he had no involvement in the Champions League in August. If anything, his recent fitness record and lack of games make him more like Falcao at this stage.

There are still plenty of unknowns, but it is naïve to brush over the significant differences in circumstances between Cavani’s arrival at United now and Ibrahimovic in 2016 and suggest the former will simply be a second coming of his ex-PSG teammate.

Replicating Ibrahimovic at Man Utd would be impressive but difficultReplicating Ibrahimovic at Man Utd would be impressive but difficult | James Baylis – AMA/Getty Images

Equally, his fitness trouble is nothing like as severe as Falcao’s was in 2014, even if he arrived similarly late in the transfer window and in at the deep end.

The most likely reality is that Cavani will end up landing somewhere in the middle of the two extremes that United have experienced in the past. But he also still has the potential to be either.

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