Manchester United tried to sign Edinson Cavani when David Moyes became manager in 2013. The forward spoke to his Uruguay teammates about Manchester and they understood that he would make the move to England.
It didn’t happen.
“Not only did he want so much money that he would have been the third best paid player, but so did his agent,” recalled a person who was familiar with the negotiations, jokingly adding: “I think he also wanted Old Trafford to be renamed after him!” In mitigation, Cavani did have an expensive divorce to pay for, but he priced himself out of the move.
In football, there are often two versions of the truth. Cavani was at the top of his game, a world class No 9, but the sticking point for him in reality was not money - but the fact he wanted to be the number one striker. He preferred a move to being back up at Paris Saint-Germain behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He didn’t want a repeat of his situation in Paris where he played second fiddle to the Swede. Unable to offer such guarantees because of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, United backed off.
Cavani had scored 33 goals in 38 games for Napoli before his €64 million transfer to PSG which made him the sixth most expensive player in the world. He delivered big time in Paris too, despite his fears that he would be second choice – 200 goals in 301 games until last season. During that time he lined up with Ibrahimovic, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. Now he’s a free agent about to sign for Manchester United.
The news both baffles and excites United fans. After years of profligate, haphazard recruitment under different managers, aren’t United’s signings now supposed to be more considered and better planned as a result of a detailed scouting process? Maybe, but it obviously leaves room for an opportunistic signing if one becomes available.
To many fans, Cavani smacks of late desperation after a limp transfer window when only one player has arrived so far. United still want to bring others in before Monday’s deadline.
There are parallels with the 2014 signing of Radamel Falcao, but also the 2016 signing of Ibrahimovic. One striker worked, one did not, though Falcao worked harder than anyone in training.
At least Cavani is a signing. United need a striker, especially with Champions League football this season. One injury or dip in form would greatly hinder the exciting and callow front three of Anthony Martial, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford. The back up Odion Ighalo is seldom used by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and was poor in two recent performances in the League Cup. It’s a shame as the Nigerian was doing well before lockdown, but he looks short of the quality to play for a top Premier League team. With Cavani on board, United won’t need to look for a replacement for Ighalo when his loan is up in January.
There are those at Manchester United who would say that in days gone by the club would have gone and signed Harry Kane from Tottenham. It would be hard, but United would have got it done – eventually. Yet United had the player-magnet Sir Alex Ferguson in charge for so long and far more money than Spurs. Football’s finances and dynamics have changed.
United are adamant that their core football strategy has not changed: home-grown talent combined with high-quality recruits playing attacking football.
United’s view is that Cavani’s a winner and proven world-class striker with one of the best goalscoring records in European football – 341 goals and 65 assists in 556 club games.
United feel that he will add firepower, quality, experience (he has 116 Uruguay appearances and 50 goals for his country) and a different style to the forward line, that he’ll be a significant addition to the strength and options of the squad.
At 33, Cavani, they believe, can be a leader on the pitch and in the young dressing room. They’re right to think that since there is a dearth of natural leaders. Harry Maguire is captain but didn’t look it as his team floundered in the opening day defeat to Crystal Palace. The team has players who don’t know what it’s like to win trophies. Cavani does.
Cavani’s presence they hope will also help the development of Greenwood, Rashford and Martial and that together they can be one of the most exciting and formidable front lines in Europe. Cavani can also play across the front. The club know that the young strikers can learn from an ultra competitive and respected figure like Cavani, learn to be professional too. When Ibrahimovic arrived at Old Trafford, he became the main man in the dressing room. When he left that became Paul Pogba, with, to put it mildly, mixed results.
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Cavani is so competitive that he insisted on prizes being awarded when the Uruguay players held pool competitions on the way to their 2010 World Cup semi-final positions. Unable to leave the hotel in South Africa, they settled on bottles of cologne. Cavani and his fellow striker Diego Forlan smelled very sweet by the end of that tournament.
So United will be getting someone who is used to playing with the best. He’s from Salto, right on the border with Argentina and not far from Brazil. It’s a city of only 100,000 which also gave the world Luis Suarez. Is there another city so small which has produced two world-class strikers?
And he is the same age as Lionel Messi. Granted he’s a pragmatic, opportunistic signing rather than a long-term investment like Bruno Fernandes or Donny van de Beek. Whether that is seen as a visionary and astute piece of business depends on the next few months. Cavani doesn’t speak good English but he’s learned the languages wherever he’s played – he speaks Spanish, Italian and French.
He’s been a success everywhere else he’s been, but at what point do his performances start to dip? Messi’s have not, Ibrahimovic’s did not. Those who know Cavani well say he is extremely motivated.
Like Falcao and Ibrahimovic, he’ll be given a fair chance by United fans. They want him to thrive, but if he flounders or continues to pick up the injuries which restricted him last season he'll be written off as another ill-conceived signing of the type which United were trying to avoid after the costly mistakes of Alexis Sanchez, Bastian Schweinsteiger et al. Unlike Sanchez, Cavani is expected to fit into the club’s pay structure, on a two-year contract.
"I think Cavani is going to do well," his former national teammate Diego Forlan told The National. "Edinson will show his conduct and way of doing things, his professionalism, the way he works hard and trains. It will be his conduct that other players can watch and learn from."
Amid the scepticism, every football fan loves to dream. Cavani’s last game for PSG was in April. His next could be against a vengeful Paris in October for Manchester United.