Playing to Cavani’s strengths
Whenever Edinson Cavani is in the Manchester United side Ole Gunnar Solskjaer talks about the importance of getting crosses into the box for the Uruguayan to attack.
There is more to Cavani’s game than simply attacking the aerial ball, his movement is excellent and he’s a superb finisher off either foot, but there’s no doubt he offers a more physical threat than any of United’s other forwards.
But it felt at the Emirates like United were playing in a style more suited to a different type of centre forward and Cavani found it difficult to get into the game, while his teammates struggled to find him.
United are clearly a better side with Cavani leading the line but they need to play to his strengths and use him as a focal point more often. In this goalless draw they played on the counter-attack and while Cavani will still get chances when Marcus Rashford is running at defenders down the right, it isn’t playing a game that will always get the best out of him.
Rashford doesn’t generally look to go down the outside of his man and stand a cross up. Cavani’s best chances came from a low pass from Luke Shaw into the box and late on from Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s pinpoint cross. He should have scored from at least one of those opportunities but it showed United how to get the best out of him and it’s something they didn’t do often enough.
The attacking output of United’s full-backs has long been an area of improvement, so seeing Shaw produce a cross that created an excellent chance for Wan-Bissaka will have been encouraging for the coaching staff. Wan-Bissaka should probably have done better with the header.
It was a feature of United’s play that both full-backs got into good attacking positions in the first half. Within the first five minutes both had got in behind on the flank and into dangerous crossing positions.
Wan-Bissaka was particularly effective in the first-half and Mikel Arteta’s decision to replace Gabriel Martinelli was probably proof that the right-back had his number defensively and offensively.
That change made life harder for Wan-Bissaka in the second half and what had been a good attacking outlet for United disappeared.
Using the bench
Solskjaer was criticised on Wednesday for taking too long to make changes and he delayed the replacement of Scott McTominay a little longer than was necessary too, with the Scot required to go down before he was taken off when it had been clear for at least five minutes he wasn’t going to last the course.
But the decision when it came was right one and it showed a proactive approach from Solskjaer. He could easily have replaced McTominay with Nemanja Matic, but for 35 minutes United had been the dominant side and Solskjaer sensed this was an opportunity to try and get a tighter grip of proceedings.
It was clear the more defensive and diligent double pivot in midfield wasn’t required, so Paul Pogba was able to drop back, meaning Anthony Martial was the replacement for McTominay. It was an enforced change that was turned into an attacking change.
Diallo’s next move
Talking of substitutions it would be no surprise to see 18-year-old Amad Diallo amongst the nine replacements against Southampton on Wednesday after his starring impact for the Under-23s on Saturday morning.
It shows the excitement around Diallo – and the manner of the 6-3 win at Liverpool – that MUTV used one of their three pre-match questions to Solskjaer at the Emirates to ask about the winger and the Under-23s’ victory.
Solskjaer talked about the £37million teenager and Joe Hugill, but it’s Diallo who is close to being involved in a matchday squad and it might sense to start easing him in, given nine subs can now be named.
Daniel James and Juan Mata are regularly among United’s replacements, but James has played three Premier League minutes since Boxing Day and Mata hasn’t had a kick in the league since December 17. Given Solskjaer’s lack of trust in bringing either of those on, one can make way for the unknown quality of Diallo.
Top six template
United’s 6-1 defeat by Tottenham in their third Premier League game of the season was always going to bring about a rethink from Solskjaer and it’s led to some attritional fixtures against ‘big six’ sides since then.
It was inevitable United would look to tighten up after that thrashing and in five Premier League games against Chelsea, Arsenal home and away, Manchester City and Liverpool since then there has been just one goal – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s penalty at Old Trafford.
United have failed to trouble the scorers in all of those games, although this was probably as well as they’ve played offensively since in that quartet of matches, and they did score three against Liverpool in the FA Cup last weekend.
Defensively there is no doubt United have improved since they shipped six to Spurs and as they still face trips to the Etihad, the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and Stamford Bridge this season that defensive resilience might come in handy.