Maybe we’ve been looking at this all wrong. Maybe Edinson Cavani—the once world-bestriding striker who now seems trapped in his own private purgatory, one where his intelligent movement and powerful runs allow him to crash through defenses at will, only for all semblance of confidence and skill and composure to abandon him right as he endeavors to knock the ball into the net—isn’t the risible figure he’s often made out to be, nor even a particularly pathetic one. Maybe Cavani’s determination in the face of futility, his willingness to bravely, continually put himself in position of almost certain humiliation, makes him a hero.
Cavani had a perfectly Cavani game yesterday. Paris Saint-Germain took on Arsenal in the Champions League, and the French club spent much of the day sprinting past their English opponent’s back line as if it didn’t exist. It only took a single minute for this hard-charging PSG team to find the opening goal, which came off the head of their Uruguayan striker. The speed of the attack, the smashed in cross, and the first-time nod-on all happened so quickly that the curse that’s been plaguing Cavani these past few years didn’t have time to activate, allowing the forward to remain poised enough to score.
That moment was the exception in Cavani’s day. Not entirely, mind you. Cavani spent most of the 90 minutes terrorizing the Gunners’ defenders, blowing by or muscling past his markers time and again, sneaking his way into great goal-scoring positions constantly. The problem, as it so often is with him, is what he did when his teammates found him in those dangerous positions. It wasn’t pretty:
The match finished 1-1, with Arsenal growing into the game after their shaky start and deservedly getting the equalizing goal late on. PSG had 11 shots to Arsenal’s 10, all of which would indicate a fairly even game.
Those rote stats don’t really indicate the discrepancy in chance quality, however. Soccer analytics writer Michael Caley’s expected goals chart for the game offers a more illustrative look (note: expected goals tries to calculate the quality of any given shot, using a number of different parameters; for the following chart, the bigger the square, the better the shot):
The culprit for the frittering away of the bulk of those chances was exactly who you think:
Cavani is in an incredibly strange place right now. He’s a player split in two: on one side, he remains legitimately very good at fighting his way into the most threatening areas of the pitch where his teammates can find him with the ball; on the other, he’s so obviously suffering from a bad case of the yips that he’s unable to take full advantage of the great chances he puts himself in position to score.
Those facts alone make it understandable that the most common response to Cavani is to laugh at him and think he sucks now. However, that he can repeatedly work himself into scoring areas game in, game out—along with his still pretty impressive though maybe a little misleading goal record for PSG—he’s proven that he’s not actually a terrible player, even if his finishing struggles also prevent him from reaching the heights he could and probably should. That he never stops running his legs off to get behind defenders; that he still points down at his feet, begging his teammates to slide out a pass into space to put him one-on-one with the keeper, with full knowledge of the dread and terror that will grip him once the ball gets to him and he to it; and the cascading waves of shame that must wash over him as he lays prone on the grass after he inevitably rolls his shot softly into the keeper’s stomach, makes him a person to be admired.