Edinson Cavani deserves to start the Europa League Final, but he shouldn't
No United player currently deserves to start in Gdansk more than Cavani, but tactically United may be better bringing him off the bench
By the time the final whistle of Manchester United 6-2 win over AS Roma blew you already had a good idea of what the starting XI would look like for the Europa League Final in Gdansk. The recent performances of both individuals and the team had most of the starting XI picking itself.
David de Gea had become the cup goalkeeper. With rumors swirling about his exit this summer it was all but assured he’d be starting between the sticks in what would likely be his final match in a United shirt.
On defense there were no questions. Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Victor Lindelof, Harry Maguire, and Luke Shaw would man their usual positions. Only Maguire’s recent injury puts any doubt behind this foursome.
In midfield Solskjaer would opt for his big game pair of Scott McTominay and Fred, with Paul Pogba’s surging form cementing his place on the left hand side. Obviously Bruno Fernandes takes up his position as the number 10.
That leaves two spots more spots to go between United’s three forwards, Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, and Edinson Cavani.
Rashford has been a near ever present in United’s XI over the past two years often playing through injury. His ‘preffered’ left wing position is occupied by Pogba but Rashford has been more productive from the right side this season anyway.
Rashford’s form has looked like it’s tailed off recently but his production tells a bit of a different story. His 0.66 npG+A per 90 over his last eight Premier League appearances (since the international break) is higher than the 0.61 he had been putting up all season until then. Over the same period his shots per 90 have risen from 2.39 to 2.65. This ‘good’ run of form has brought his full season npG+A right back to par for his career at 0.62.1 Rashford has been in there for every big game and it’s hard to see Solskjaer leaving him out.
After a slow start to the season, and then a slow middle of the season, Mason Greenwood has suddenly caught fire. The 19 year old has scored eight goals in his last 13 appearances in all competitions putting up a 0.81 goals per 90 in that span. It’d be unfathomable to leave him out right now.
But then there’s Edinson Cavani. As hot as Greenwood has been, no one has been hotter than Cavani. It may have taken the Uruguayan a while to get going but he’s now showing exactly why United signed him, and were pushing to bring him back next season.
Cavani has scored nine goals in his last 10 appearances in all competitions. Only six of those appearances were starts giving him a whopping 1.31 goals per 90 since the win at Spurs.
Right now, based on current form, no United player deserves to start this match more than Edinson Cavani. On current form, he’s the first name on the team sheet and everything else goes from there. His inclusion is a no brainer.
Tactically it might be better bringing him off the bench?
I know there are some that will say United should just drop Paul Pogba and play all three forwards. That’s just simply not an option. With the McFred midfield - and even more so with the absence of Harry Maguire - it’s crucial to have someone who can drop into midfield to help with the ball progression duties while still having a creative outlet up top. If they just heap that all onto Bruno and Shaw the match will look a lot like the West Brom or Leeds matches - only worse because Maguire won’t be progressing the ball from the back either.
From the March international break until a week ago United had been setting about their matches in much the same way. Play smarter not harder. The team would play within themselves for the first half of the match, letting their opponents try to get at them while tiring themselves out. Then in the second half United would open things up and blow them away.
It’s hard to say it didn’t work. United won six of seven matches with the only draw coming against Leeds, a match where they never actually brought out the artillery in the second half. Sometimes they’d fall behind 1-0 but this was more the result of either an individual mistake or bad luck then being over powered by the opposition. Sure they’d sometimes go down 1-0 but that was more the result of an individual mistake or bad luck than the opponent overwhelming them. In each of those matches it only took United a few minutes after halftime to even things up.
Cavani only started two of the seven matches in that winning run. He was sensational - and a massive reason why United won - against Spurs, but the week before against Brighton might have been his worst performance in a United shirt. A week later he played a big role against Burnley, but this time coming off the bench at halftime.
Against Liverpool and against Fulham United attacked from the get-go. It took them less than 15 minutes to grab a lead but United quickly burned out after that. When they needed to kick into another gear in the second half, they couldn’t (though how much they were trying to kick into another gear is up for debate).
Which way would you rather play? The one that yields results, or the one that sounds good on paper?
Cavani is the only game changer that United have coming off the bench. Mason Greenwood has scored some big goals off the bench,2 but bringing him on for Rashford doesn’t change anything.
It’s a like for like sub. Bringing on Cavani, - whether it be for one of the two midfielders and moving Pogba to the pivot or for either Greenwood or Rashford - changes how United attack. It changes their focal point. That’s something useful if things need to be changed.
Tactically, United are better off starting the match in that hybrid system that has Rashford up top with Mason Greenwood on the right, but then changes to Rashford on the left wing and Greenwood up top with Pogba either switching sides or moving to the middle with Bruno drifting to the right.
This is how they lined up against Burnley and Aston Villa. Both those games went well per say. United didn’t dominate the first half but they absorbed the punches and in the second half had too much firepower.
Cavani in the starting XI hasn’t exactly been the magic formula for United this season, winning just seven of the 13 Premier League matches he’s started. Two of those matches (West Ham away, Brighton home) weren’t won until after Cavani left the pitch. His impact was also minimal in the 1-0 wins over Wolves and Burnley. Having said all that, all those matches came before lockdown restrictions were lifted and Cavani suddenly found his form.3
This is a tricky situation. Cavani is United’s best forward at the moment. He’s also 34 years old and he only has the legs to play the full 90 minutes in one scenario, if United are winning. If they’re not, he doesn’t have the legs late in the game that you need to get that winner.
Rashford and Greenwood are both more than capable attacking players but neither are the game changers off the bench that Cavani is. Rashford came off the bench against Leicester and Fulham recently and never looked like getting involved in the match.
United would benefit from being able to bring Cavani on after 45 or 60 minutes and having him run against tired legs. Depending on the game state you can bring him on for Greenwood or Rashford, or one of McTominay or Fred (and move Pogba to the middle). If the game were to go into extra time, he’d be available for that too.
In a way, Cavani is a victim of his own success here. Is he good enough to start? Absolutely. Does he deserve to start? For sure. But he’s also the only one who can make the impact that you may need coming off the bench - something Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows all too much about.
No one deserves to start this match more than Edinson Cavani, Just don’t be surprised if he doesn’t.
Rashford’s npG+A per 90 by season
The man is nothing if not consistent
Greenwoods three goals off the bench this season: The third against Luton Town, the third against Tottenham, and the sixth against Roma
Since (and including) that Tottenham match Cavani has started six matches. United have won three so uhh