Marcus Rashford can consider his 85 minutes on the bench in Manchester United’s 2-1 win at Fulham one of the most productive experiences of his career. If he uses his time wisely, Rashford will see Edinson Cavani give a masterclass on the art of playing centre forward.
Some might argue that the strength of United’s opponents reduces the value of Cavani’s performance, with Fulham entering the match four points clear of the Premier League relegation zone and Fulham four points clear of the Championship. However, the skill of Scott Parker’s team and defenders should not detract from the performance of the 33-year-old Uruguayan international, whose 21st-minute equaliser was a superb effort. Ademola Lookman’s first goal in the 29th minute paved the way for United to regain the lead.
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United signed Cavani’s loan deal on deadline day in October as manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer desperately sought a solution to the lack of a true centre-forward in his squad, either temporarily or permanently. The signing of the former PSG striker proved to be a gamble – not quite in the same league as the signing of Odion Ighalo at the end of January, who was loaned out by Shanghai Shenhua, but still a gamble, given that he has been a free agent since his release by Paris Saint-Germain last June and has not played or trained well for several months.
However, against Fulham at Craven Cottage and Everton at Goodison Park in the quarter-finals of the Carabao Cup in December, Cavani dispelled any doubts about the continuity of his quality by putting in an outstanding performance as a centre-forward to help United to a big win.
Three days earlier, Rashford had been moved to the centre-forward position by Solskjaer in the 0-0 draw with Liverpool at Anfield and the 23-year-old struggled to get off to a good start. Similarly, when an England striker plays in central defence, Anthony Martial also struggles to convince Solskjaer that he is the answer as United’s best centre-forward.
At 33, Cavani is obviously not a long-term solution either, but he buys time at United to find the best player he can sign, or for Rashford or Martial to become champions in that role.
Rashford has struggled to play a central role at Man United, but they need him to assert himself. OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images
Solskjaer has already tried in vain to sign an exceptional young forward: United’s attempt to sign Erling Haaland failed last season when the Norwegian, who left Salzburg, opted for Borussia instead of Dortmund. If or when Haaland becomes available again, United will be at the top of the queue to sign the 20-year-old. But they may have already missed their best chance to bring him to Old Trafford, and the competition for his signature is likely to be much more intense than the last time he decided to leave.
As a result, United and Solskjaer may have to rely on Rashford to step back, work with him alongside Cavani and learn from a player who has been one of the best centres in the world for over a decade.
Does Rashford have what it takes to move forward? He is clearly an attacking player with plenty of talent, but Rashford’s strengths at the moment are his speed, his ability to play inside from the left and his willingness to shoot from distance. It takes a lot more attributes to be the highest class in the job.
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United have had some big names in recent years – Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Zlatan Ibrahimovic – and they have all been able to do what Rashford cannot yet do. They were able to play with their backs to the goal and were physically strong enough to withstand the hard marking of the defenders, get ahead of them to create spaces and take their chances. They were all strong in the air, scored regularly and all possessed the crucial discipline of playing in midfield in a narrow corridor on the edge of the penalty area to give their team a coordinator who could receive the ball and delay the play for his teammates to join in the attack.
Most importantly, each of them had a doorway instinct that allowed them to snoop and take risks that others simply didn’t notice.
Cavani (left) celebrates his last big goal in United’s midweek win over Fulham. Although he is 33 years old, he still has the talent to start, but time is running out for his teammates to get going. PETER CZIBORRA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
Robert Lewandowski of Bayern Munich may be the best example of a true centre-forward, but Cavani is in no way inferior to the Polish international. And at Fulham he showed all the qualities of a great centre-forward, with a never-ending work rate also part of his game.
Cavani harassed Fulham’s defenders for the full 90 minutes, forcing them to make mistakes. His goal is another example of what a top scorer can do: He threw himself at a ball provoked by goalkeeper Alfonso Areola and hit the rebound before a defender could react. He continued in the same vein in the second half, providing another example of his quality by almost going inside the box after passing Fulham’s defenders.
Rashford was on the bench when all this happened, and if he steps in, he’ll realize there’s so much Cavani can do that he can’t do yet. Cavani’s movement and his ability to bend and time his runs so he doesn’t get caught is a big lesson Rashford needs to learn, but that can come with training groundwork.
It remains to be seen whether Rashford will be able to develop other qualities. Can he get physically strong enough to play as a forward? Can he fight his natural instinct to run to the goal and instead learn to play behind his back? Can it get stronger in the air? And could he become even more reckless if given the chance to score? Or should United just encourage him to get even better as a left-back – he may have to fight for that position – and not risk sacrificing his qualities to become the answer through the middle?
Both Rashford and United have big problems to solve, but if they can’t do it with Haaland at the second attempt, they both need Cavani to defy his age and keep showing how he can do it.