For all the good work Manchester United did in the summer transfer window, they couldn’t escape criticism. Pressure and scrutiny are part and parcel of life at England’s biggest club, but there were two rather fair questions put to manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at the start of the Premier League season.
Given the arrivals of Daniel James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire each represented good business, why weren’t other obvious gaps filled?
And with that in mind, how could Romelu Lukaku be allowed to leave in the circumstances he was?
Solskjaer will say the Belgian had his heart set on the move to Inter, and it had become evident that the end was coming for him just weeks into the manager’s initial interim reign. But his departure itself wasn’t the problem; it was what he left behind. Lukaku was a proven goalscorer and someone who could be counted on, as he has shown consistently under Antonio Conte this season, and his exit left a hole that both Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have struggled to fill since. The former has found his feet of late, but neither are of the required standard yet to lead the line under such an intense spotlight. Their similarities, in that neither specialise in box play, rather cutting inside and running into space, means Solskjaer’s men have become far too predictable and containable at times this season.
At their best, the Red Devils can go toe-to-toe with anyone, even in their transitional state. Victories over Paris Saint-Germain, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City particularly stood out in 2019, but to reach their best level, the tactical make-up for matches has to be in their favour. If they are allowed space to get up to speed, Rashford and Martial make them a great threat. Yet, if they are stalled, they become easy to play against, without another option to change their style or the experience to pull them through. Teenager Mason Greenwood is quite obviously the next hope to come from the academy, and although he has hit the ground running, he is not yet ready to make the difference.
Results aren’t necessarily backing his approach up, but there is much to admire about Solskjaer’s work in the job so far. He is in an interesting position when it comes to solving this attacking problem, because the trio he has at his disposal have everything they need to lead the line for years. Greenwood is an excellent finisher and a real presence in the box, but he is too raw to be trusted right now.
The answer isn’t to spend record numbers on a new front man. There aren’t many at their peak available and certainly not in January, but a short-term signing would be ideal. In PSG’s Edinson Cavani, an ideal option may just appear this winter.
The Uruguayan’s time is coming to a natural end in Paris. His contract expires in June and at the age of 32, despite the offer of a new one, he is set to leave with Mauro Icardi picking up the baton alongside Kylian Mbappe and Neymar. But ‘El Matador’ still has a lot to offer at an elite level. His generation of striker, which includes international teammate Luís Suarez, Robert Lewandowski and Karim Benzema, is a dying breed of attacker: these days it is more common to see a blend of positions up front, like with Rashford and Martial, but they are built to stay central and score goals in any system. Perhaps Greenwood’s era will be a callback in that regard, but Solskjaer needs a presence up front right now to make his team feared again in every circumstance.
Atletico Madrid are keen to sign Cavani at the end of the season on a free transfer, with reports that deal is all but done. But there is still time to pounce, and he could be available at a knock-down price this month.
Interest in former Juventus man Mario Mandzukic was designed to allow the younger strikers to grow without blocking their path, and the impact Zlatan Ibrahimovic had under Jose Mourinho cannot be understated, but signing Cavani would be a better option than both because he has more left in the tank at the very top level. Had PSG not struck a deal with Inter for Icardi on an initial loan, he would probably still be a key man there. Bringing him in would also complete the merry-go-round as it was Lukaku’s arrival at San Siro which originally forced the Argentine out there.
Despite a plethora of attacking options including Joao Felix, Alvaro Morata and Diego Costa, Atleti remain in the driving seat in this situation. It is unlikely that Solskjaer will divert away from his new policy of younger, British-based players in such a way as to sign Cavani, but issues remain in the squad after a lukewarm summer, and a major one is scoring goals against the run of play. Somebody like Luka Jovic, set to be made available at Real Madrid, would fit the bill, but would likely frustrate the likes of Greenwood.
Cavani is ready-made, one of the best strikers in the world and able to play off the shoulder and in possession. He is, in short, everything needed at Manchester United right now, and getting him in could be an instant game-changer with a long-term payoff.
Harry De Cosemo is on Twitter