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Edinson Cavani, Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial: The Striker Conundrum or Blessing?

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Manchester United are currently putting the finishing touches to their almost year-long pursuit of Jadon Sancho, it seems fitting to theorize how his arrival at the Theatre of Dreams impacts upon the strikers available at the club, namely Edinson Cavani, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood.

To begin with, let’s look at Edinson Cavani, the deadline day signing from last summer, the man who was given the opportunity to lift the so-called “number seven curse” at United. After a late goal to deal tree points against Everton last November, Cavani announced himself to United fans with a sensational performance against Southampton having come on at half time to rescue a 0-2 deficit, capped off with a 92nd minute winning headed goal. 

The next few months were inconsistent, with off field issues and injuries limiting his minutes on the pitch. There were reports that Cavani was struggling to settle down in Manchester and wanted a move back to his home continent of South America and it looked for a while that he would leave without having played in front of the fans. A goal against Granada in the Europa League kickstarted a late season resurgence and he carried that form till the end of the season, the highlight being a 40-yard chip to celebrate the return of fans at Old Trafford. He ended the season with 17 goals, all of them from open play.

Mason Greenwood is the latest star to emerge from United’s famed academy, and is one of those rare commodities in football, a lethal finisher with either foot, able to keep the majority of his shots on target. Having made his debut as a substitute in the famous comeback win against Paris Saint-Germain in the 2018/19 season, Greenwood was gradually eased into the team, his minutes carefully handled by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

He exploded in that end of season, post lockdown period where he formed a deadly front three with Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. A difficult start to the 2020/21 season meant he was largely an impact substitute until April before a late winner against Brighton proved to be the catalyst for another late season glut of goals. 

Across 105 appearances in two seasons, Greenwood has scored 29 goals, which are very impressive numbers when one realizes that the majority of these are off the bench. Having played mostly as a winger until now to compensate for his lack of physicality, Greenwood looks ready to transition into the centre forward role this season.

Anthony Martial is the player on this list with the most to prove, having endured a very underwhelming season in 2020/21. Signed from AS Monaco as a teenager in September 2015 under Louis Van Gaal, he had an excellent first season at the club before the arrivals of Jose Mourinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic meant that he had to move to a left wing position to retain his spot in the starting XI. 

After a couple of frustrating seasons under Jose Mourinho, Solskjaer’s arrival sparked new life into Martial and he ended up scoring 23 goals in all competitions in the 2019/20 season, being especially prolific in the post lockdown time frame. Expected to kick on, Martial had a forgettable 20/21 season, with a loss of confidence in front of goal as well as injuries not helping his cause.

In terms of style of play, all three have their very unique strengths which can only benefit the club to unlock different sorts of defensive formations. Cavani is the closest player the club has to a penalty box poacher, in the mould of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Solskjaer himself, although his off the ball movement is an underrated trait of his game. His ability to score from headers is unquestionably superior to both the others.

Martial is probably the most complete player out of the three when on the ball, able to dribble out of very tight spaces and is a very efficient finisher when on form. However his off the ball movement isn’t the best, and he prefers receiving the ball at feet rather than running into space which can occasionally slow down attacks.

Greenwood is the most clutch finisher at the club, able to score from inside or outside the box with ridiculously low back lift. Because he is two footed, he can be very difficult to mark for defenders. He has also worked on his build up play from the wing and looks set to be the club’s long term solution at centre forward once Cavani eventually leaves.

To summarize, Cavani would be most suited against medium to low block teams where his exceptional off the ball movement would help him to ghost into pockets of space and drag defenders towards him, leaving space centrally for the others to exploit. His expertise from set pieces would also come into play.

Martial and Greenwood would be most suited against teams where the club do not expect to dominate possession, with Martial dropping deep and holding up the ball before releasing it for Greenwood and Bruno Fernandes to hit the opposition on the counter attack.

It would be fascinating to see which combination of the front three the club chooses going into the new season, especially with Marcus Rashford unavailable for the first two months, and how much the centre forward varies based on opposition. It is imperative that the minutes for all these three players, especially for Cavani, is carefully managed in order to sustain a potential title challenge for the league as well as go deep into the Cup competitions.

Written by Avitaj Mitra

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