If it was the intricacy of some of Manchester United’s build-up play that caught the eye in the dominant win against Istanbul Basaksehir, that wasn’t primarily what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was focusing on before and after the match.
Having picked Edinson Cavani to start his first game for the club Solskjaer was keen to make sure United played to his strengths, which means getting the ball into the box.
“We want to go out there, dominate the game and create chances. Hopefully, we can provide the ball into the box for Edinson,” Solskjaer said before the game, with impressive accuracy as to how his team would go about their business.
Then as he radiated in one of United’s more comfortable victories this season, Solskjaer said: “I thought there were some excellent attacks at times,” Solskjaer said. “One- or-two touch football. We started out well with getting round the team, putting some crosses in, which is something we’ve not been known for lately.
“But with Edinson it’s a different centre forward in there and some of the attacks – the last goal was a good example of one or two-touch football, so very happy.”
That desire to “provide the ball into the box” and “putting some crosses in” is a shift from United’s usual attacking approach, but it’s something Cavani allows. The experienced Uruguyan is a much stronger aerial presence than Anthony Martial and also spends more time between the whites of the posts than the latter, who was shifted to the left to accommodate the summer signing.
To make this approach work, however, United need someone who could cross the ball. That’s not likely to come from Martial, who cuts in from the left on to his right-foot, and while Rashford could go past his man on the right, he isn’t a natural winger either. It was the kind of night that would have been crying out for Jadon Sancho, who was busy scoring for Borussia Dortmund instead.
Solskjaer mentioned Rashford’s ability to cross from the right post-match, but he put in just one cross. United did manage to make the most of Cavani’s presence though, with 18 crosses in total, and 11 of them came from the left foot of Alex Telles. The next best performer in that department was Bruno Fernandes with three.
It was a clear shift in game plan for United. They put in just 11 crosses against West Brom at the weekend for comparison. In fact the 18 crosses delivered at Old Trafford on Tuesday was United’s highest tally this season, and the most they’ve produced in a single game since throwing in 20 crosses, mostly in desperation, during the 2-0 defeat to Burnley at Old Trafford on January 22.
While that was a tactic more in hope than expectation, Tuesday’s approach was not a case of cross it in and cross your fingers. Cavani was a lively target and while Telles’ cross for the second goal might have owed a fair chunk of fortune to some poor goalkeeping, the 33-year-old striker did make a good near-post run.
If Solskjaer intends to continue with Cavani through the middle then crosses become a much more potent threat for United, which could make Telles a secret weapon.
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The Brazilian is a much more attacking full-back than Luke Shaw, whose six crosses in the reverse fixture in Istanbul was the most he’s produced in a single game this season. He didn’t hit that tally in any games last season and only once in 2018/19, when putting in six crosses in the FA Cup quarter-final defeat to Wolves in March 2019. By contrast, Telles was in double figures for attempted crosses on nine occasions for Porto last season.
United have needed more from their full-backs for a while now and in Telles they might just have someone who can deliver. If Cavani continues to remain a realistic target in the penalty area than the summer signing could become a major asset down United’s left flank.