Opinion: Cavani is the template to follow

Tuesday 28 December 2021 12:00

Both Manchester United's manager and captain were in agreement after the chaotic 1-1 draw against Newcastle United: it had been a disappointing performance.

Ralf Rangnick and Harry Maguire both bemoaned the team's sloppy mistakes and lack of energy against a boisterous Magpies side. Both were honest that any COVID-related problems in the build-up to the game were not enough to excuse some of the poor passing and simple errors.

But when the dust settles on Monday's spit-and-sawdust encounter at St James' Park, the point earned from a losing position will start to seem a little more pleasing.
And while we must acknowledge David De Gea's stunning saves, I feel we have one man, above all, to thank for that workmanlike point: the returning Edinson Cavani.
90 in 20: Newcastle 1 United 1 Video

90 in 20: Newcastle 1 United 1

Watch the extended highlights of our pulsating draw with Newcastle on Tyneside...

There were few other positives to take from a match full of gaffes and mishaps, but the Uruguayan's comeback was undeniably one. After coming on at half-time, he simply cut through a sea of clumsy challenges and disjointed link-up play with the usual regal intelligence.
Sadly, El Matador has been limited this season. In terms of game time, that is.
The match at Newcastle was just his ninth appearance of the season, and only his sixth in the Premier League.
That means you can easily forget just what he offers. Maybe 'forget' is the wrong word. But his absences mean that, when he returns, the way he plays the game hits you with a freshness that can sometimes take you aback.
The Reds had really struggled to carve out clear openings in the final third during the first 45 against Eddie Howe's relegation-threatened side, but when Cavani came on, instantly our team started to show more flow and fluidity.
When the ball was worked out wide to either Diogo Dalot, on the right, or Alex Telles, on the left, Cavani always seemed to be in space, ready to receive the ball, when the cross arrived.
It is uncanny, but it happens that often, there can be no coincidence.
These are the skills Cristiano Ronaldo has acquired during the latter half of his career, following the transition from winger to striker. But you sense that Cavani mastered these particular arts before he discarded his short pants as a child.
Ralf: I want much more intensity Video

Ralf: I want much more intensity

The boss gave us a detailed analysis of what needed to be better at St James' Park...

There's an effortlessness and an instinctiveness about him that defenders cannot pre-empt. However much they think or worry about Cavani is irrelevant – he will out-think whatever approach they decide to take.
When that ball is delivered, the chance that Cavani will be there is dangerously high.
His finishing wasn't at its best, admittedly. Perhaps that's understandable after almost two months out with injury.
He had a good chance to slide home Jadon Sancho's well-timed low cross early on in his substitute appearance at St James' Park, but his mind and body didn't seem to have quite synced up yet.
Even his goal came after an initial shot was blocked. But the genius came out in the follow-up, in his calmness and awareness, when he sliced the ball in the opposite direction to which the defenders and goalkeeper were moving, into the emptiest corner of the net.
How Cavani equalised against Newcastle Video

How Cavani equalised against Newcastle

Watch the moment substitute Edinson Cavani made it 1-1 at St. James' Park...

And we haven't even mentioned his energy yet. For a man who's plundered hundreds of goals throughout a superb career, he doesn't half seem hungry. For goals, yes, but there's something beyond that. It's a love of competition; a need to fight and to test yourself. Sometimes, Cavani seems to do something simply because nothing else is happening.
When the game had gone stale, or he was struggling for form and effectivity, the legendary Australian spin bowler Shane Warne used to ask himself: 'How do I get myself into this contest? How do I get myself going?'
The greatest performances don't start with pure, naked genius; they start with energy, desire and a willingness to engage in the battle. With both body and mind. Don't let the pressure of the occasion, or the team you are representing, sideline you. Find a way to get yourself into that contest and show your spirit and character.
Why we all love Cavani Video

Why we all love Cavani

Edi's workrate and never-say-die spirit is summed up in this short clip from Wednesday's game...

Fans love to see a runner; someone who slaloms all over the pitch trying to win the ball back, giving everything for the cause. They love to see someone who's always switched on, and demanding more from their team-mates. When Telles misjudged a stray ball and let it run out of play for a throw-in, Cavani was urging him to concentrate more; to keep the ball in play and maintain the pressure. These are little things, but they really matter.
Remember Cavani's never-say-die closing down against Villarreal at Old Trafford earlier in the season? The game was locked at 1-1 at the time, but his incredible recovering run drew the kind of unique, collective roar from the Stretford End that builds the platform for late winners like the one Ronaldo eventually found.
It's a lesson to any other United player. Any other footballer, for that matter. Work hard, and you will get undying affection in return. That applies to everyone, whether you're Alan Smith, Ji-sung Park or a genius goalscorer like Cavani.
The sadness, of course, is that Cavani is approaching 35. How long can he keep going? And – the question United fans are always asking – how often can he get onto the field for us? But right now, he offers a template for the rest of the squad, and the kind of energy, physicality and intelligence that interim manager Ralf Rangnick wants to see.
At Newcastle, we were off the pace, but more composure and intensity will surely come with a regular flow of games, when the boss has had more matches and more time on the training pitch with his new coaches.
Until then, let's just forget Monday's scatty performance and learn from Cavani's second-half rescue act. Complete commitment, complete intelligence, in every moment.