Edinson Cavani has provided the template for Manchester United’s attacking future. The 34-year-old’s lively performance against Tottenham Hotspur last weekend was arguably his best yet since moving to Old Trafford, and showed the enormous value that it adds to United’s attack when an out-and-out striker is leading the line.
Cavani is the latest in a string of transfer experiments by United, following in the footsteps of Radamel Falcao and Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a veteran centre-forward who is brought in for a temporary boost to the side’s forward line. And the Uruguayan has already proven his value in that role, with seven goals from 20 appearances (with 11 starts) a decent return for a player of his age. He could yet sign an extension, particularly if he helps steer Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side to the Europa League title. But it was the style and impact of Cavani’s display against Spurs that showed just how important it is that the Manchester United hierarchy go out and sign a centre-forward for the future this summer.
“We haven't had that type of number nine for a long, long spell,” said Solskjaer after Sunday’s 3-1 win. “Edinson has been working so hard to get fit and you can see the boys played a little bit to his strengths as well. The cross from Mason (Greenwood), brilliant, the pass through from Paul (Pogba), brilliant, and for Fred's goal Edinson's movement is the key to the goal.”
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It is that movement, that focal point, that makes United’s attack look more complete whenever a fit Cavani has featured this season. He occupies the centre-backs, links play brilliantly, and offers a target for the rest of the team’s attacking talents to play off. Having him in the team also suits whichever of Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Greenwood play in the wide areas. All three of those players have been asked to occupy the central striker role at times over recent seasons, but all are more comfortable operating out wide, and are thriving when they have somebody of Cavani’s calibre to operate off.

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It’s understood that Cavani would be open to a second season at Old Trafford, and Solskjaer confirmed this week that “there’s no secret we want to keep him”. But even if Cavani does stay expecting a player who will turn 35 midway through the season to be the team’s primary number nine is too big an ask for a club of United’s standing and aspirations.
As to who United will target in the summer, there are two much-discussed options in the transfer market.
Harry Kane is reported to be looking for a move away from Tottenham Hotspur, and the England captain and Premier League top-scorer would certainly be a huge signing for United. His goal-scoring record speaks for itself, and would seemingly make him a great fit in that role for Solskjaer’s side. However, much of what has made Kane so central to the tactical set-up of both Spurs and the England national team in the last couple of years is his ability to drop off and operate almost as a hybrid no.10. At United that is the space where Bruno Fernandes typically operates, and it could be that Kane would need to adjust his game slightly to mesh with United’s other attacking players.
Kane is more than capable of adapting in just that way and would be a brilliant signing if United do manage to get him, but the more similar transfer option to Cavani out there right now is Erling Haaland.

Erling Haaland of Borussia Dortmund in action during the Bundesliga match between VfB Stuttgart and Borussia Dortmund at the Mercedes-Benz Arena

Image credit: Getty Images

The Borussia Dortmund star is one of the most clinical out-and-out nines that European football has seen for some time. Compared to the other four strikers named in this article (Cavani, Ibrahimovic, Falcao and Kane), Haaland has the best goals-to-shots and goals-to-shots-on-target ratios of all of them. Admittedly the length of his career makes that a much smaller sample size, but Haaland’s numbers are improving as he steps up through the levels, not dropping, and every indication is that he will be a major goalscoring force for many years to come.
If United want a striker to occupy the centre-backs, offer a physical presence to their front-line and provide both clever movement in the final third and a focal-point for others to play off, then Haaland seems to fit the bill. At seven years younger than Kane he also represents a potentially much longer-term investment. The big issue is the competition, and whether United will want to get involved in a transfer bidding war, particularly given the club’s previous difficult experiences with Haaland’s agent Mino Raiola.
Either way, if United want to get back to the top of the English game then their ageing Uruguayan has shown them the way. Adding further quality to the defence is an issue for another day, but Cavani has shown that a world-class and long-term option at number nine is the missing piece in United’s attacking jigsaw.
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