Manchester United’s match against Brighton and Hove Albion got off to a bad start before a ball was even kicked on Sunday. Addressing the media before the match, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said that Anthony Martial could miss the rest of the season with a sprained knee.
Martial has not been having the campaign he wanted or hoped for coming off a 17 goal season last year. He’s shown glimpses of getting back to his best, most recently against Manchester City, but for as many of those moments he’s had, he’s had an equal number of games where he’s just looked lost or worse.
Nevertheless, Martial missing the rest of the season is a big blow for United as despite not scoring, Martial has been United’s best fitting striker this season and they don’t seem to have anyone who can replace him.
United’s system isn’t built around a ‘traditional number 9.’ Rather their center forward needs to be a more well rounded player who can help out in a variety of different areas on the pitch. Holding and link up play, being able to play with their back to goal, and being able to run on a counter attack are all more important qualities for a striker in this United team than just being a poacher.
Over the last two years Martial has excelled in all those areas except the last one. Even when Martial was scoring goals last season Solskjaer spoke of wanting the forward to develop more of a hunger for scoring goals and to start scoring more of the so-called “ugly” goals.
Martial’s inability to be a fox in the box was one of the reasons United struggled to beat teams who played a low block against them last season. The team needed something different just to give them a different look; be less predictable, add a different threat. Enter Edinson Cavani.
Cavani is much more of a traditional number 9. His movement in the box is exceptional. He’s got an engine on him that allows him to run for days.
The Uruguayan got off to a fast start at Old Trafford. It was thanks to those traits that he spearheaded a 3-2 come from behind win against Southampton.
Three days before that Cavani’s movements and striker instincts were on full display in United’s win against Istanbul Basaksehir. Watch as his movement draws defenders away and opens a path for Bruno Fernandes to shoot. Cavani doesn’t stop on the shot — once Bruno shoots he’s still moving to get himself into a good position for a potential rebound.
United now had a bonafide poacher within their ranks. The hope was that Cavani’s movement in the box would be something their young forwards — Martial, Mason Greenwood, and Marcus Rashford — could learn from and add to their games.
That simply hasn’t happened. Martial is still simply far too static. Rashford’s scoring is still very one dimensional — the majority of his goals coming either on counter attacks or when he’s played in behind — and he’s only taken five headed shots this year despite United launching even more crosses this season. Entering Sunday’s match, Greenwood had only taken one headed shot, and that came from a Timothy Fosu-Mensah cross against Crystal Palace on the first day of the season. Of all the forwards United have it seemed like the only one learning from Cavani and adding those movements to his game was... Dan James.
That changed Sunday. With United looking for a late winner against Brighton, Mason Greenwood delivered the goal we’ve been waiting for. It’s not the fact that Greenwood scored a late goal — he’s done that plenty of times in his still short career — but it’s the manner of how he did it.
Bruno Fernandes plays a ball across the box to a wide open Paul Pogba. Pogba fluffs his shot, and ordinarily that would be it. But watch Greenwood: he’s not standing around watching, he’s moving the entire time, and as soon as he sees Pogba is going to attempt a shot he starts looking to get into position for a potential rebound.
There’s no rebound but when Pogba fluffs his shot Greenwood throws himself at the loose ball to direct it goalbound. These are the striker instincts you want to see, and it came from Greenwood’s subtle but constant movement. This was particularly reminiscent of the equalizer Cavani scored against Southampton.
Constant movement, always looking out for where the ball might end up, and if there’s a broken play just throw yourself at the ball. Take advantage of the chaos.
Now, what we saw Sunday was just a brief glimpse of something possibly being added to Greenwood’s game. It’s far too premature to declare this skill fully part of his repertoire or to expect that we’ll even see it consistently.
That goal may have been just a brief glimpse of what Greenwood can offer, but if Martial is out for the season it has to be enough to warrant moving Greenwood to center forward full time, because Cavani is simply not good enough to play there every game.
Cavani’s good start to life at Old Trafford hasn’t continued. After scoring three goals and getting one assist in his first 131 minutes of Premier League football, he’s scored three goals and gotten one assist over his next 877 minutes.
Beyond the production, Cavani is far from a perfect fit for this United team. His hold up play is almost non-existent, as is his ability to lead a counter attack. These are vital areas where United need their center forward to contribute.
United are built around having all 10 outfield players contribute towards their attacking buildup (this is another reason why Lindelöf is often preferred to Bailly when they’re both fully fit). Cavani doesn’t do that. That can be accommodated for in the first half of the season with a fresh and thriving Bruno along with a fully fit Marcus Rashford. At full fitness they’re good enough to cover the deficiencies of one or two players and still make magic happen.
With Rashford not being fully fit for the better part of the past four months, teams have been able to narrow down their focus much more onto Bruno in the middle of the pitch. We’re seeing more and more teams man-mark Bruno knowing that Rashford won’t be able to take advantage of a little bit more space. With Bruno being marked out, if Cavani isn’t contributing to the buildup then you’re suddenly trying to do this with only eight players — many of which aren’t what you would call ‘creative.’
On Sunday Cavani had an xG Buildup of just 0.02. In his two previous starts — against Crystal Palace and West Brom — his xG Buildup was 0.00 and 0.04 respectively. These were two of United’s worst attacking performances of the season. Over those three games Cavani created just a single shot.
When Cavani was signed the belief was that he would help United break down teams that played deep blocks. That very much has not been the case though.
Cavani has been good this year against the likes of Southampton, Liverpool (FA Cup), Arsenal, and Everton. Teams that will actually come and play football against you. But when United have had all the ball, he hasn’t been effective.
On paper, Brighton should have been a great game for him to thrive. They’re a team that like to come out and play and it’s no coincidence that Cavani started the match brightly. Then Brighton scored an early goal and rather than keep playing like Brighton, they decided to sit back in a low block (not a bad idea if you’re playing against United).
That was when Cavani’s flaws started being exposed. Starting with his inability to turn on the ball and start a potential break.
Cavani is known for his high motor. He can run forever. On Sunday we saw him do that on defense but all too often he was the lone man pressing. This is counterproductive for two reasons: it tires him out quicker and, if no one is pressing behind him then all this does is stretch United out defensively.
Cavani is also known for his constant movement, but we weren’t seeing that yesterday (or the past few games). When facing a deep block you need constant off the ball runs. You need someone to appear between the lines and someone to make runs in behind. United are at their best when their front three move around, but once United went 1-0 down the only member of the front three trying to pop up in different places and make runs was Rashford.
Cavani remained incredibly static in that central forward position. Whereas he should have been trying to make some runs in behind, he was leaving that role to be filled by Pogba.
And by Bruno.
Notice how when Lindelöf needs someone to show for the ball, Cavani remains stagnant, and it’s Bruno who breaks and makes a run to give Lindelöf an option.
Cavani is known for his movement and his runs, but on Sunday we weren’t seeing any of that. In fact, many times we saw Cavani doing the opposite of he’s known for. Here Luke Shaw gets the ball out wide and Cavani quickly does a little banana shaped run. He aborts it when he sees that Shaw isn’t playing a ball, but then he just stops. When Shaw loses the ball, Cavani slumps his shoulders and walks away.
Later, a Bruno shot is spilled by Brighton goalkeeper Robert Sanchez. Cavani is usually a big predator and positions himself to anticipate goalkeeper errors. It’s how he scored against Fulham. Here he runs by the ‘keeper but when the ball is spilled he just... stops. Yes the spill is behind him but Cavani never even tries to re-enter the play. Mason Greenwood gets a shot off because Dan James is the alert one who’s not giving up on the ball.
Cavani only touched the ball 17 times in 81 minutes against Brighton (Dan James played 18 minutes and had 10 touches). Five of those 17 (29.41%) touches came before Brighton went 1-0 up. To say Cavani failed to get involved in the game is an understatement. It was all too fitting that United’s first goal came from a 50/50 ball that Cavani lost.
When Cavani came off, it didn’t exactly look like United had the players on the pitch to go and fetch a winner. Their forward line comprised of Greenwood — and his one Premier League goal — being flanked by Dan James on the right, Bruno on the left, and Donny van de Beek as the number 10. This might not have inspired confidence in fans but it was now four players who all provided movement. No more standing around.
That movement was key for United’s second. It starts with van de Beek breaking towards the corner flag when the ball came out to Luke Shaw. That run draws the defender out wide and opens up space for Bruno to run into.
Shaw plays an impeccable ball in for Bruno who gets into the box and turns to see what’s there. Coming in from the right is Dan James, whose run towards the near post forces the defender to follow him, leaving acres of space at the back post for Pogba to run into.
From there, everything comes into place.
Cavani is a bit of a Catch-22. When he’s not on the pitch, United are able to advance the ball deep and put in crosses, but they lack that poacher in the middle to finish those chances. When Cavani plays, his lack of contribution to build-up play prevents United from creating as many of those chances.
If we look at the 15 games where United had the highest conversion of touches in the attacking third into touches in the box, Cavani has only started three of those games (one of which was the 9-0 win over Southampton). Of the bottom 15 games, Cavani has started seven.
There are still plenty of games left on the calendar for Cavani to make an impact (matches against Liverpool, Leeds, and Leicester come to mind, plus the Europa League), but against the deep blocks Solskjaer has got to roll the dice and give Greenwood some opportunities.
It’s been a tough second season for Greenwood and he’s still very much an unknown. It’s not like he tore it up when given a chance against West Ham before the break, but his all around game is better now than it was a year ago, and it’s also better now than it was six months ago. We have to hope that Sunday showed us just what he’s working on behind the scenes. If Greenwood can add those movements in the box to his game and then let his goalscoring instincts take over from there, he can lead the line. Give him the chance to show it consistently and United could be duly rewarded.