The 34-year-old’s endless movement was a nuisance to Spurs and a gift to his attacking partners
There will be those quick to mock and point out the obvious in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s assertion that experience is critical to Manchester United rising above turbulent tides and navigating away from what Roy Keane so efficiently and brutally described as “a disgrace.”
While the manager may remain awfully light on that key tenet, he can bank on it in spades up front where the partnership of Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani not only provided the all-important commodity of goals on Saturday evening, but revived the brilliance of Bruno Fernandes.
Two of those players have been guaranteed starters, the other – deserving of the same status – was a very noticeable difference in United’s offensive output.
On an evening when Harry Kane was once again absent without leave, and while Ronaldo filtered the encounter with world-class effects, it was the naturally understated Cavani that was decisive.
The oldest team that Solskjaer has ever selected, reshaped into three at the back to offer greater protection and defensive solidity, spotlighted the nothingness of Tottenham.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s men did not offer a shot on target and by his own admission: “We conceded in a poor way, we lose balls, we allowed counters. We couldn’t find the lines, the combinations. The last pass was never there, the finish was never there. A bad performance… We are not on the right track.”
Tottenham, quite clearly, are not a significant measure of whether United’s work in and out of possession has greatly improved. It could get no more shambolic than last weekend’s staggering surrender to Liverpool at Old Trafford, but in the face of the overwhelming pressure that followed, they stumbled upon a short-term fix.
It is hard to go wrong starting the tireless, intelligent Cavani. Pairing him with Ronaldo offered the Portugal international a foil willing to do both the hard work and apply the touches of a pedigreed forward.
Temporarily park the Uruguay international’s finish for United second. A glance at his heatmap – here, there, everywhere, as though he’d morphed into Roy Kent from Ted Lasso – tells the tale of a determined, relentless player willing to do anything for the collective.
Cavani’s endless movement was a nuisance to Spurs, gifting Fernandes more options in possession and creating extra space for Ronaldo to do damage.
Ronaldo’s exquisite opener was a product of crafty timing in the run and wondrous execution from Bruno’s sublime, lofted ball. But look closer and Cavani has drawn in three markers, taking them out of play.
The ground he covers for his goal, the smart bending of his run, and the conversion of Ronaldo’s magic after fine work from Bruno was evidence of a top-tier forward in action.
“I’ve been here three years and Tuesday’s training session from Edinson Cavani is probably the best anyone has put in here,” Solskjaer said post-match.
That was an unsurprising revelation, but it spoke to the fight, tenacity, aggression, and the mentality the manager needed to complete his latest Back from the Brink act.
Cavani’s attitude leading up to the game, and his performance in it, was a snapshot of everything United required for a rousing reaction.
In the immediate future, that could spell bad news for Mason Greenwood and £73m acquisition Jadon Sancho, neither of whom played a minute at Spurs. Marcus Rashford, overplayed even through injury last season, was introduced on 71 minutes to add gloss on a comfortable victory and may need to get acquainted with cameos.
“The experience of Edinson Cavani and Cristiano is massive,” Solskjaer said. “We need it. We can’t hide. The week has been difficult for the players. They really stuck at it. Experience counts in situations like this.”
Cavani can’t be expected to play every game, especially when the schedule packs in three a week, so there will be minutes on the go. Whether the system can operate well without him, or when tasked with more meaty opponents than a most miserable Spurs, remains to be seen.
Atalanta and Manchester City will doubtless supply a sterner examination of United’s current state.
On a wider scale and longer-term should he continue in the dugout, Solskjaer must find a solution to merge United’s three best young attacking talents and a sustainable structure.
While he decodes that conundrum, Cavani shines as a stellar reference point and route to unshackling the gifts of Ronaldo and Fernandes.