Cavani is PSG’s top all-time goalscorer | Jean Catuffe/Getty Images
In life and in football, we’re told to never look a gift horse in the mouth.
And if the gift horse in question happens to be a legitimate international superstar who over the course of a glittering career has won 22 trophies and established himself as PSG’s all-time top goalscorer, you’d instinctively think that there’s no need to ask for the receipt.
The problem with strikers, however, is that they’re not a cozy pair of socks your aunt has given you for Christmas, but a footballer who has to play in a football team, and who will therefore have a bearing on where other footballers play within that team.
With Manchester United reportedly close to the acquisition of Edinson Cavani, it would be easy to conclude that they’ve taken advantage of a fantastic opportunity to improve their squad, and increase the potency of an already fearsome forward line. But giving the matter a little thought leads you invariably towards the conclusion that it may not be that simple.
Man United are closing on Edinson Cavani deal! Agreement reached on personal terms until 2022.
Last details to be sorted about agents fee [huge amount – €10m asked] then the deal will be done.#MUFC see Cavani as “great opportunity”.
Here we go expected soon. NO Luka Jovic ? https://t.co/JCI08Gw1em
— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) October 3, 2020
Let’s get this out of the way first – Cavani is an excellent striker and more than has what it takes to succeed in the Premier League, even at the age of 33.
Almost everyone in Europe knows what he’s about, but in case you needed a reminder, it’s a pretty simple equation – amazing at creating shooting opportunities, famously not as amazing at converting those opportunities.
In his incredible 2016/17 Ligue 1 season where he top-scored in the league with 35 goals, the Uruguayan had an incredible 142 shots, 57 more than his nearest competitor Alexandre Lacazette, but at a conversion rate of 47.9%, only 68 of these were on target to Lacazette’s 48 (FbRef).
Cavani can sometimes struggle in one-on-one situations | VI-Images/Getty Images
He is a fantastic header of the ball – as anyone who watched his opener against Portugal in the 2018 World Cup will remember – and is a hard worker who can hold up the ball well. With Anthony Martial sometimes struggling to make things stick when dropping deeper, Cavani theoretically represents a decent stylistic alternative to the Frenchman.
With two gifted creative midfielders at their disposal in Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes, it’s not a bad idea to make sure that they have options when it comes to selecting a pass, and Cavani, a man who registered a 40% success rate in aerial duels last season which far exceeds Martial’s own 25.9% (FbRef), gives them something that they genuinely do not have.
The real problem is that playing him centrally creates a bit of a tactical dilemma for United, and one that they do not yet have the facilities to solve (barring an unlikely Ed Woodward masterclass).
Without Jadon Sancho, the Cavani signing could end up being fairly ineffectual | DeFodi Images/Getty Images
The issue is that in order to accomodate Cavani, something has to happen to Martial (and possibly Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood), whether the PSG man is an outright replacement for him in the first team or just a Plan B.
United could just choose to keep things as they are, but that leaves the issue of Greenwood out on the right wing. Greenwood’s goalscoring record speaks for itself, but against deeper defences he does not possess the requisite dribbling skill or creativity to make an impact.
They could also operate with Martial and Rashford on either wing, but that means that one of the two right-footed players would have to play as an inside forward on the right wing.
Edinson Cavani will be used as an alternative to Anthony Martial. #mufc have wanted a striker to replace Odion Ighalo and hope Cavani can be a leader in the dressing room, helping to develop Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford #mulive [@lauriewhitwell]
— utdreport (@utdreport) October 4, 2020
Rashford is relatively two-footed but just 13% of his goals since 2015 have come with his left (Understat), and it is clear that he prefers to cut inside onto his right foot on the left flank.
Martial, meanwhile, has made no secret of the fact that he loves that number nine shirt and the central striker spot, and it is true that he gets better opportunities there with his speed, instinctive movement and unerring finishing.
Since 2014 he has registered 0.44 xG90 (Expected Goals per 90 minutes) as a centre-forward, his highest out of any position, but just 0.03 xG90 in his two appearances on the right. In short, moving either Rashford or Martial to the right risks nullifying them as an attacking threat.
Would either of these players work particularly well on the right? | Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
In short, United have an issue on the right wing whatever they do at the moment, and fitting Cavani into the side is only going to make said issue more complicated.
On the other hand, it seems that there is some good news for United. They are supposedly interested in a young right winger who is one of the most prolific dribblers in Europe, logged 16 league assists last season, and was one of Europe’s top scorers. The only problem is that they are around £30m away from Borussia Dortmund’s valuation of Jadon Sancho.
This is the puzzle for United, and one that they can’t get wrong. Do they go for Sancho despite his lofty valuation? Or do they try and compromise with signings like Cavani, and try to make square pegs fit in round holes positionally?
The answer may well define their season.