Coming up on 300 goals in his 12 year career, Uruguay striker Edinson Cavani has scored goals of every type. But there is a specific goal that puts his timing, movement and powerful striking on full display in the form of a late arriving, one touch blast off a cut back pass like the one he scored against Brazil in the 2018 CONMEBOL qualifiers. That sequence is particularly suited for the current era of transitions and counter attacks as defenders leave pockets of space in that area while they scramble to stop the ball. No striker has exploited the move as effectively as Cavani since this round of World Cup qualifiers. At age 30, Cavani is finally hitting his highest goal scoring form for both club and country.
The Brazil goal above added to his CONMEBOL qualification leading nine goal tally for a Uruguay side now guaranteed for at least a playoff round. Cavani’s tally stands above familiar names in Neymar, Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal. Willian reflected last month on the learning curve when transitioning from manicured European pitches back to the pounding South American heat. Ecuador striker Felipe Caicedo’s seven goals in the tournament compared to his two goals in 29 matches last season at Espanyol is the clearest example of the divide between continents.
Cavani has had no trouble translating his game between competitions. It may be a sign of his opportunistic nature, feeding off Luis Suarez’s creativity to sneak in front or past defenders. Or perhaps his physicality and aerial ability makes his approach effective regardless of where a game is played. But the partnership between the two players born less than a month apart in the same city brings out the best in each other with Suarez’s tricky dribbling attracting defenders for Cavani’s off ball movement.
Suarez’s four assists to Cavani have come off two distinct plays. One is a quick flick in transition to a moving Cavani as seen against Peru and in his second goal versus Venezuela. Against Paraguay, Suarez made two trademark runs down the sideline to move defenders, then cut back across the goal to his wide open strike partner. For those keeping track, that’s four Cavani goals coming off four touches, alongside his requisite tracking back and off ball running. There is a backhanded description of a striker who does nothing the entire game then scores, but Cavani is unique in his ability to impact a match without touching the ball.
Then again, this round of qualifiers is the first time leading Uruguay as the focal point. He made his senior team debut in 2008 playing alongside Diego Forlan and Suarez. But it was Cavani who had to sacrifice his game as the odd piece out. In Uruguay’s quarterfinals match against Ghana in 2010 World Cup, he began the match as left winger in a 4-4-2, then moved to the opposite wing after halftime with Suarez and Forlan tasked with creating. Over the years, his versatility through the middle and on the wings allowed manager Oscar Tabarez to field his best attackers in any lineup. His sacrifice for the greater good is an overarching theme for his career and displays his ability to make a team work on both sides. It’s an oft-overlooked trait where the evidence is in wins, trophies and team’s lack of cohesion when the player isn’t in the lineup. Although in the last two seasons especially, we’re seeing the results of when the roles are reversed and Cavani’s teammates play for him.
The quality of South American strikers, namely the x-factor combination of instinctive creativity and drive, comes in various forms. While not the fleet footed creator of Messi or Neymar, nor the power dribbler of Sanchez or Suarez, Cavani’s divergent style of a target forward who does his best work in creating and finding space will never receive YouTube virality (outside of an occasional missed chance, as we’ll see below). Thomas Muller invented a “Space Investigator” role that would be apt to describe Cavani at his best. His goal against Bayern Munich in the second matchday of this year’s Champions League again showed his ability to time a late run into the box off a transition.
Cavani’s European rise came during his Napoli years at the turn of the decade. Alongside Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi, the trio captured the neutral’s imagination as a direct, counter attacking side. That era was highlighted by their 3-1 win in the first leg against Chelsea in the 2011 Champions League in which Cavani scored a goal with an blindside run and trademark one-touch efficiency and provided two assists. A record $75 million move to PSG came soon after in 2013, although not without criticism or controversy. He again sacrificed his game for the bigger name in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and until last season, his goal tally failed to match the expectations of his transfer fee.
This explains the difference of opinion when ranking the striker. There exists as many compilations highlighting his misses and clumsiness as there is to his clinical finishing (his miss against Arsenal in the Champions League last season stand out). At one point last season, he simultaneously scored the most and missed the most clear cut chances out of any striker in the top five European leagues. People ask whether he’s the best or worst striker in Europe. And even when he’s scored 43 goals in his last 44 league matches with PSG, he’s the odd player out if his feud with Neymar ever reached that level.
The general theory is that attackers reach their peak somewhere between 25-26 years old. One could argue that Cavani had this goal tally in him this entire time if he were played in his proper position. It is interesting to note that the 31-year-old Falcao is also hitting another patch of form while Suarez has struggled to adapt to new manager Ernesto Valverde’s system at Barcelona. Cavani’s days converting as a hybrid winger are probably over due to his age, but what he loses in positional versatility he gains in being closer to goal.
Former Monaco sporting director Tor-Kristian Karlsen’s described the style of Suarez, Falcao and Diego Costa as not being particularly sophisticated but covering ground and executing highly precise technique with pace. Cavani hits that awkward middle ground of his description where those disparate skills come together to form a goalscoring machine. Sure, he’ll miss chances, and those misses will get magnified on social media leading to an even deeper divide on opinions reflecting his quality. Cavani is defined by dichotomy, both of skill and of opinion. So perhaps it’s appropriate to conclude with an inarguable fact outside of retweets and million video views, that the most prolific striker in what is considered the most difficult competition in world football today is the Uruguayan attacker who built his career on impacting matches outside of goals.