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Manchester United Tactical Analysis: Edinson Cavani’s subtle movement is key

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Cavani’s movement is as crucial for United as his goals are

Southampton v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Oh you want me to start writing? Okay hold on, just gotta take care of one thing.

Hold on. Almost ready. Just give me a second.

Okay we’re good.

Two things stood out from Manchester United’s 4-1 win over Istanbul Basaksehir. Donny van de Beek needs to play more and — for now — a Van de Beek-Fred midfield pivot isn’t good enough defensively to be an option in the Premier League.

So what do you do? The diamond it is! Van de Beek slots in opposite Fred with Nemanja Matić at the base and Bruno at the top. The results? Well, we’ll get there.

This season Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has demonstrated his ability to change a match with his substitutions. He did it against Newcastle, Paris Saint-Germain, RB Leipzig, and Chelsea. In the former two he found late winners. Against Leipzig they blew the game open. Against Chelsea they created the chance...

...it just didn’t go in.

The thing about all those games was: all those changes were part of Solskjaer’s initial plan. Keep it close for the first 60-70 minutes, then bring in the good players (Paul Pogba or Bruno) and blow them away with the extra firepower. They didn’t get the win against Chelsea not because the plan didn’t work, but because he stubbornly stuck to it, only bringing on an extra attacker for the last 10 minutes when he could have done it sooner.

What Solskjaer never answered during that stretch was the question of what happens when you get punched in the mouth? What happens when the initial plan isn’t working? Can you adapt to that?

Then there’s another question, it’s much rarer but it certainly comes up from time to time. “What do you do when the plan is seemingly working — you’re not playing poorly — yet you suddenly find yourself 2-0 down at halftime?”

That was where Solskjaer found himself after 45 minutes at St. Mary’s on Sunday. The diamond was doing what the diamond does. It keeps United very organized defensively and doesn’t give their opponents many good looks. That comes at the expense of creativity. United just don’t create much when playing with split strikers.

This was the third time United have played the diamond this season and the third time they’ve used Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood up top — an interesting choice given the system requires strikers who can hold play up and they’re both very poor in that area. In each one of those games in the first half the team has managed to create one (1) good opportunity for Mason Greenwood. Against RB Leipzig he scored, against Arsenal he didn’t. Against Southampton...

I know some people don’t like expected goals but on this one nearly everyone said “Greenwood HAS to finish that.” In other words, you’re saying that because you expect Greenwood to score there.

What expected goals does is look at a database of thousands of shots amassed over time and look at all the ones that came from this exact position and determine the probability of scoring a goal here. The xG on this shot was 0.22. In other words, only two out of 10 times does that get converted. It’s a much more difficult finish than you think.

All in all Greenwood has had three chances like this whose xG adds up to a total of 0.44. He’s finished one of them (33%). That’s pretty good!

Unfortunately, that’s the only chance United were able to create for him. He got another one but that came from Greenwood being smart on the press and forcing a turnover, not the buildup from the system.

United could certainly feel hard done by here. They had created good chances but they weren’t creating many chances (just six shots in the first half).

On the other side of the ball, United were now 2-0 down thanks to two *perfect* but completely preventable set pieces.

The first one starts with Bruno Fernandes. United have a chance to clear their lines and work the ball out to Bruno. Instead of keeping possession, passing to a teammate, or doing anything productive, Bruno decides to flick the ball to no one (there is no one even close to him).

That allows Southampton to keep mounting pressure. Eventually Harry Maguire is able to head clear and the ball falls to Bruno again. Bruno is quickly dispossessed and commits a foul during the ensuing challenge.

You’ll never guess what happens next. The ensuing free kick is defended by Victor Lindelöf who heads it out for a corner. And then...

The defending is a little poor from Marcus Rashford and Alex Telles but I cannot stress to you enough how perfect this corner was.

Last year The Athletic wrote an article about Christian Eriksen’s corner kicks for Tottenham Hotspur. If you talk to a Spurs fan, they’ll tell you how frustrating Eriksen was because he could never beat the first man on a corner. There’s a reason for that as the Athletic explained:

C: The Athletic

As the article states, the window that Eriksen is trying to hit is incredibly small. More often than not, you’re going to miss, and when you miss you’re going to hit the first man. But when you don’t miss, it’s nearly impossible to defend.

James Ward-Prowse didn’t miss.

Ten minutes later he was given another chance when Fred put in his only wrong foot of the game with a needless foul on Moussa Djenepo outside the box.

I know Djenepo just embarrassed Fred, but he had Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Lindelöf right there. Djenepo’s run is completely covered! There’s no need to foul here.

At the time, four of the six goals Southampton had scored against Solskjaer’s United were on set pieces. Just don’t give away needless fouls and you’ll be ok! As if on cue...

It’s hard to strike a ball more perfectly than that.

Last week I wrote about how United’s performance wasn’t that bad. They were looking for the right things but they just weren’t coming off. At the end I wrote this.

Overall? It’s not bad! They played the way Solskjaer wants them to play: organized at the back, quick forward passes, always looking to attack, and had their highest creative output of the season despite having a team comprised of players who are all at an individual level out of form. If they’re doing this when they’re not on it, just imagine what they’ll do when they are.

Repeat that performance multiple times and you’re likely to win a lot more often than you won’t.

This week, they were (still) doing the things that you want to see them do only they were starting to come off. Greenwood making the run to receive the early ball from Telles to create his big chance.

Matić getting the ball and quickly moving it forward to allow Rashford to run at defenders.

Fred pushing the ball forward as soon as he gets it to create a good chance.

And that’s where Solskjaer sat at halftime. They weren’t playing poorly. Two perfect, but completely avoidable, set pieces were the difference. The xG had United ahead 0.85-0.23. United were getting football’d. It happens.

But what do you do? Repeat that performance in the second half and you’re more likely to end up 2-2 after 90 minutes than not. But 2-2 would feel like a bit of a letdown in a game where you were so clearly the better team. So you need to be even better.

And so a small tweak was made. Enter Edinson Cavani (eventually, when he’s done tying his laces). United’s only true number 9.

Cavani might be a fox in the box but his true value to this team could be him teaching his teammates the art of subtle movement. Too often United’s forward line is painfully stagnant. You’re not going to get that with Cavani.

That was evident on the first goal, which of course starts with the buildup. United win the ball and Cavani comes to the right hand side to provide an outlet for Wan-Bissaka.

The holdup here between Cavani and Fred is crucial as it changes the starting point of United’s attack. When Fred has dodged his defenders and is ready to look up, United now have five players ahead of the ball.

Wan-Bissaka then gets the ball on the right flank. Last season, when playing with the right-footed Dan James on the right side, AWB and James never really got the hang of creating space for each other. The result was very clunky, and made it very easy for one player to mark both of them.

This time though, Wan-Bissaka runs at the left-back and into the space between him and the midfielder. That forces the fullback to commit to him, leaving Cavani open for an easy layoff on the flank.

Bruno finds some space in the middle of the box and that’s just easy.

Bruno gets the ball in the box and Bruno scores again. It’s almost like there’s a theme here.

Just over 10 minutes later United would equalize, again thanks to the superb but subtle movements of Cavani. Watch how Cavani (highlighted) never stops moving in the box - specifically how when the ball comes out to Bruno he’s already looking to get himself into position for a potential rebound or deflection.

These are the types of predatory instincts United have been lacking. Anthony Martial may be a very good finisher in front of goal, but that’s when he knows where the ball is going to be and where he needs to run. When it comes to improvising — or just hunting for a chance to turn nothing into a half chance — he leaves a lot to be desired.

You’ll never guess what brought about United’s winner 19 minutes later. It’s not a case of just lumping the ball in and Cavani getting on the end of it. Rather it’s again the smart movement of Cavani that creates this goal.

Watch how Cavani (highlighted) times his run. He doesn’t just start when the ball moves out to Rashford.

Both centerbacks start moving to get themselves into position. In order to do that they both have to turn away from Cavani. Both of them give a quick glance over to Cavani to make sure they know where he is. As soon as they both look away, that’s when Cavani breaks, attacking the space right between them so there’s nothing they can do.

Solskjaer said after the game that United haven’t had a striker like this since Romelu Lukaku left, but even Lukaku didn’t have the predatory instincts that Cavani has.

Through two games it’s obvious the different elements that Cavani brings to this team. It gives United options in to how they are going to attack teams, making them far more dangerous.

Now the key for Solskjaer is managing Cavani’s minutes to prolong this effect. The Uruguayan has delivered a fantastic return of three goals in his first five games with United. Given all the things he brings to the table it’s easy to get carried away and say he should be a first choice starter.

That’s just not possible. Cavani can’t play twice a week, week in week out. He’s 33 and so much of his game is based on energy and running. I understand he has fantastic fitness levels but no one outruns father time and burnout comes for everyone.

You want that return of three goals in 5 games to turn into six goals in 10 games, then nine in 15 and so on and so forth. You don’t want to throw him out there every game as the schedule picks up and suddenly realize that three in five has become just five in 12.

Cavani will probably start against PSG because that was likely always the plan. The plan was probably to start Martial and Rashford up top on Sunday, and bring Cavani on if needed for the last 25-30 minutes. When Martial fell ill, Solskjaer tried to stick to the plan as much as possible by selecting Greenwood over Cavani. When that wasn’t working, he deviated and brought Cavani on for longer than originally planned.

But hey, if you can get two goals and three points in just 45 minutes of Cavani, that’s a job well done. The key for United’s season will be two fold. How much they can get out of Cavani, and how much his on the pitch movements can rub off on his teammates.