“There are not many who fit that profile and are of elite standard in football right now - yet the chances of United developing into a title-challenging team would be greater if they had such a player,” wrote Wayne Rooney about Manchester United’s search for what he described as a “genuine No. 9” center forward. He argued the benefits of signing Harry Kane over Jadon Sancho, even with Sancho seven years younger. But for all the rumors of nine-figure spending, Rooney only half got his wish as United signed 33-year-old Edinson Cavani to fill the role, for free, on deadline day. The move came under criticism not over Cavani’s quality, but due to the manner of the process, of how one of the sport’s premier global brands waited until the final day to secure an out-of-contract player three matches into the season.
“A Kane or [Erling] Haaland or someone like Robert Lewandowski would give [Marcus] Rashford and [Anthony] Martial someone to play off and freedom to roam into different areas...without the burden of always having to score,” Rooney continued. From Kane to Haaland to Lewandowski - to Cavani? There is also an unspoken implication in Rooney’s targets. It’s not enough to score goals, but a center forward must also advance the legacy of United’s No. 9 jersey.
It wasn’t the first time that United behaved this way. In spending over $300 million during the previous two windows, the only other No. 9 they’ve added was Odion Ighalo last winter, again at the last minute (they reportedly backed out of an agreement with Haaland in the same window). In fact, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer missed out on every one of his transfer targets this summer: there was no Sancho, no Jack Grealish, and no Nathan Ake. According to Sevilla sporting director Monchi, this last minute scrambling is a byproduct of boardroom design. The Spaniard expressed his disbelief that United continue to operate without a sporting director, a role he describes as the “connection” between the board, the first team, and building a balanced, long-term squad in the transfer market.
Instead, several other Premier League sides made moves for center forwards at a premium price. Ollie Watkins, Rhian Brewster, Rodrigo, and Callum Wilson cost Aston Villa, Sheffield United, Leeds, and Newcastle over $120 million. Vocal about a backup for Kane, Jose Mourinho agreed to a loan move for Benfica’s Carlos Vinicius with a $53 million option to buy. Even with the unspoken pledge to not spend money during this summer due to optics, Premier League sides were responsible for just under $1.3 billion of the total $3.2 billion spent in Europe’s top five leagues over this window.
Considering the amount of financial risk, a sporting director seems essential for any top-flight club, much less United. Many of the above transfers were completed before the start of this season, filling essential roles for sides who struggled with goals last season. The returns were immediate: Watkins scored a hat-trick against Liverpool and should easily beat Grealish’s team lead of eight goals from last season (Villa hired Johan Lange as sporting director in July). Wilson has already scored four goals in his opening four matches with Newcastle.
“There wasn’t much in it and we have a striker who scored a typical striker’s goal...we have been missing the goals,” explained Steve Bruce of how a true goalscorer can win a match out of nothing following Newcastle’s 2-0 win over West Ham. Wilson’s opening goal came off a deflected cross, with the 28-year-old beating the keeper to the final touch. It was hardly a viral moment, but still worth three points.
As Rooney noted in how a center forward can take the pressure off the rest of his teammates, there are nuances in attackers and goalscorers. Not every goalscorer is a center forward, and not every player who sets up in a central attacking position is a forward. And just because a team has wingers who can score goals doesn’t mean they still don’t need a true center forward to further unlock a team’s offense.
There are also different styles among the No. 9 role. Target strikers are dominant in the air, others are more adept in building up play on the ground. Today’s forwards must also be mobile enough to press. So how many true center forwards are there in the contemporary game, as opposed to wingers or midfielders who happen to play centrally in an attacking line? Social media and tactics lead to an obsession with either buildup play or pressing, but someone must be in position to take advantage of possession or turnovers.
Goals are still the game’s signature currency. And to go one step further, easy goals are what separates the best of strikers. Solskjaer previously said he wanted Rashford to score more goals from inside of the box to emulate a center forward (the United manager also said he wanted Mason Greenwood to work on his heading to become a true No. 9).
“[Rashford] should always get those simple tap-ins, finishes like [Romelu Lukaku has] scored in the last few games,” described Solskjaer of the Platonic idea of a forward’s goal.
Cavani has made his career with simple and efficient goals, the ones overlooked by retweets and shares. It is an irony and twist of life that Solskjaer, a scorer of ugly goals as a player, has been unable to find a version of himself in a player during his time as United manager. And Cavani’s presence may be of value in itself. Rio Ferdinand compared the Uruguayan’s potential impact on Greenwood with Henrik Larsson’s value to a young Rooney. Cavani may not be Kane or Haaland in age or form, but that doesn’t take away from his potential long-term influence on a squad.
Goals were especially abundant over the opening four match days leading up to the international break. Premier League matches are averaging 3.79 goals per game, the most since 1930. We’ve also seen the highest amount of “big chances” per match since Opta began tracking the metric.
“It might give the strikers a bit more freedom to try things they perhaps wouldn’t if they felt there was a bit more pressure there with the fans,” said Everton centerback Michael Keane on playing in empty stadiums.
This is the strangeness we looked for in the initial run of ghost matches, the results like Liverpool and United getting outscored 13-3 on the same day. The analytics may tell us not to put too much attention to goalscoring numbers during this unique season due to inflation. We can still ask whether that extra sense of freedom without supporters most benefits mediocre strikers to add more goals, or quality strikers to artificially enter the debate of world-class players. Regardless of the reason, and in lieu of nine figure superstars, Cavani’s free transfer could end up being the best value in the window for a club that doesn’t need to do value. Even when the process is incomplete, you can still arrive at the correct answer.