Andy Cole thought Edinson Cavani reminded him of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Though the Manchester United manager disagreed with his former teammate, you could understand the logic. After all, Cavani had done as Solskjaer use to: come off the bench and have a profound impact on a match.
Southampton’s 2-0 lead into the break was no less than they deserved, and even as they nursed a 3-2 defeat at the final whistle, Ralph Hasenhuttl was justified in his assessment that, by and large, they did a lot right. But an assist for Bruno Fernandes, a brilliant reflex header for the equaliser and the 92nd-minute winner guided off his brow inside the near post were moments of brilliance from Cavani the hosts could not avoid. The only other Premier League player to come on and have a hand in three goals was Solskjaer himself when he bagged four against Nottingham Forest in February 1999.
Beyond the influence as a substitute and the statistical quirk, Solskjaer disagreed with Cole’s comparison. One reason given was the delay at the start of the second-half: the Uruguayan stuck on the touchline sorting out his footwear as United restarted with 10 men for almost half a minute.
“He’s not learned off me – I was ready, always had my boots tie with the right studs.” It was a comment made with a wry smile, underlined by Solskjaer reiterating it was out of character for one so “meticulous” with all aspects of his game, especially his preparation. As it happens, the Norwegian sees more of Cole in Cavani.
“He reminds me of Andy; clever, great timing. Edinson made a great impact, one of the cleverest best movers, peel off you, and he certainly had an impact.” That, without question, is high praise.
After all, Cole remains third on the Premier League’s all-time leading goal scorer, with his last top-flight appearance coming in January 2008. Only Alan Shearer and Wayne Rooney have bettered his haul of 187 (93 of them for Manchester United). It’s taken Sergio Aguero 10 seasons – and counting – at one of the best-attacking sides in the modern era, and significant physical toll, to make it to 180.
Like Cavani, who took his career tally to 253, they were an assortment: headers, volleys, tap-ins, winners, equalisers and title-clinchers. Cole found the net so many times that he admits he can’t remember most of them. Indeed, once Cavani finally puts his sinuous legs up, he may have forgotten one of these two, probably the diving effort that brought the scores level. Winning goals tend to last that little longer.
But Cole was not just goals. For the Manchester United sides of the mid to late nineties and briefly at the start of the 2000s, he was their guide upfront. Leading their attacks from afar with his movement off the ball, dragging defenders into places they didn’t want to be. On the rare occasions Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides were under the pump, he was their North Star showing them where sanctity lay.
All of which are traits Cavani has showcased in his eight appearances so far. Solskjaer admitted there was no genius to his introduction, merely that he wanted him on the pitch as a focal point in the box: “We’ve not really had that since Romelu (Lukaku) left. He gives us a great balance and mix.”
The effect was noticeable on the right-hand side. Aaron Wan Bissaka along with Fred, who occupied an advanced position on this side in the first half, gave the Saints little to fear. Moussa Djenepo profited most from this vacant threat, flaunting his license to dazzle, and winning the free-kick that James Ward-Prowse whipped in for 2-0.
Cavani immediately gave them something to worry about, pulling off from the centre to press, scrap on both flanks. Eventually, with the ball at his feet on the right, outside of Wan Bissaka, he crossed to Fernandes in the middle of the box – space created by the former’s movement – to get United’s first.
Not only did Fernandes step up a gear after a wasteful performance until then, but others also thrived. Marcus Rashford, who spent most of the opening 45 minutes chasing his first touch down blind alleys, found more room and – crucially, more options. With Southampton pinned back for a free-kicking the dying embers, Rashford held back out on the left to receive the ball and cross for the winning goal. Like Cole, Cavani had solved everything around him, like a big-screen television finally arriving so you know which way the furniture needs to face.
It probably understates Cavani to call him a throwback, but he is undoubtedly a drifting, darting lesson that old values still have a place in the new world. Just as it is probably an overstatement to say any of this would matter as much without the goals.
Because goals have been hard to come by for this side, just 13 from eight coming into this round. Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial all seem to be most effective when playing wide rather than through the middle, and the issue has been an inability to score “ugly”, which is more an issue of function for a team relying primarily on transitional plays that require the opposition to swing first rather than any stylistic pretension. For the first hour, Southampton goalkeeper Alex McCarthy avoided initiating fast breaks when he had the ball in his hands, aware any miscalculation on the counter would result in a counter right back.
“Sometimes when we scored goals it’s had to be the perfect goal, almost like walk it in, extra pass or great skill,” said Solskjaer after the match. “Edinson has been around the block, been between both posts. He’s seen this game before, that cross before and his best friend in the box is space and he gets into that space with perfect timing.”
Another thing Cavani shares with Cole is that they were both on the receiving end of jibes that they need five chances just to score once. Let the record show that Cavani has three of United’s 13 goals from open play this season from three shots on target.
There was trepidation when Cavani arrived at Old Trafford in October from Paris Saint-Germain, and not much of it was out of place. After the unsuccessful pursuit of Jadon Sancho, all the more embarrassing for Borussia Dortmund’s openness regarding inefficient negotiations, and United’s “didn’t fancy him anyway”, the acquisition of an unattached ageing striker on a two-year deal, each costing £9million, perpetuated the notion that the club’s recruitment was confused.
Of course, none of that has been proved untrue by one man and 45 minutes. It’ll take much more to air out the residual stench of Falcao and Alexis Sanchez.
Even this win, a fifth in a row away from home for Manchester United, cannot be chalked up as a triumph of tactical coherence. United have fallen behind in all of them, and this victory was the most precarious of the lot. Their goal difference, thanks to the goal advantage here, is now zero.
For now, though, they are five points off the top with a game in hand, armed with one of the smartest strikers in the modern era who has experience to share and plenty more to offer.
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