Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knew what he was getting when he signed Edinson Cavani last summer.
The Manchester United manager had done his research and former Old Trafford luminaries Ander Herrera and Diego Forlan were among those consulted on Cavani’s character.
Both praised his “attitude and personality” and when Solskjaer spoke to Cavani it was clear the hunger was still there. This was no bucket list move to the Premier League, Cavani felt he still had something to offer and trophies to win.
His performances have backed that up. There have been seven goals so far from an xG of 5.3, highlighting the ruthless finishing that rarely deserts a goalscorer as accomplished as Cavani. United certainly missed him against Newcastle on Sunday night.
But with around three months to run on this season United are yet to trigger the one-year extension in the contract he signed in October when to all intents and purposes it looks like a formality.
The message from Solskjaer last week is that the two parties would sit down at the end of the season to discuss what comes next. This will be a decision made between club and Cavani, rather than imposed by United on the player.
Yet it should remain a fait accompli. As Solskjaer said, “what he’s done has been very positive.”
You could also understand the decision to hang fire for now. Cavani has missed the last two games through injury and having turned 34 earlier this month he’s at an age when a footballer’s gifts can quickly desert them, both technically and physically.
There’s been no sign of that in Cavani, but that doesn’t mean to say it might creep into his game. He will turn 35 during next season and a one-year extension is the maximum that should be on the table.
Rather than slowing down, Cavani is outworking his rival to lead the line for United. Anthony Martial might be nine years younger than Cavani but the Uruguayan attempts six more presses per 90 minutes this season and against Newcastle Solskjaer was on the edge of his technical area demanding movement from Martial. That’s something that comes naturally to Cavani, whose movement is one of his greatest strengths.
It’s the form of Martial that really gives United little option when it comes to Cavani. Having been excellent as a No. 9 last season, especially post-lockdown, he’s regressed this season. Like Cavani he has seven goals in all competitions but while Cavani is producing 0.49 goals per 90 minutes, Martial is down at 0.30.
In June and July there was a sense that Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood were emerging as a thrilling front three for United and the goals were flowing, but it’s not been as easy this term. When signing Cavani Solskjaer highlighted how his forwards could learn from one of Europe’s pre-eminent No. 9s, but so far Martial looks to have shrunk in the face of competition for his place rather than embraced the challenge.
To jettison Cavani now and go into next season with Martial as the senior striker would be a significant risk, unless the Frenchman somehow recaptures his best form between now and May.
There’s no doubt United need a long-term solution at centre forward, but that is something that will not come cheap. With matchday revenues looking like they will be non-existent throughout the entirety of this season there isn’t going to be a sizeable transfer kitty this summer, when United may be looking at their options at centre back and on the right-wing.
That would make giving Cavani another year a sensible choice, even it comes with a risk that he begins to find the years catching up with him at some point.
United can then focus on signing a striker in the summer of 2022. The alternative is a show of faith in Martial, but right now that doesn’t look justified.