Things were going so well for Manchester United.
Fluency had permeated across their game, matches were being won with verve and gusto and cylinders were firing in all departments across the pitch. Reigning champions Liverpool were nearly beaten at Anfield, before being knocked out of the cup just a week later.
And then, in this most bizarre of Premier League seasons, United were dealt a sledgehammer blow by losing at home to bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United.
It’s given Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his side a shot of sharp, sobering perspective.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be musing who, out of Edinson Cavani and Anthony Martial, to start
Now, the United boss needs to make some key decisions and make them quickly. His side must recover fast, ahead of a trip to face an Arsenal side who have already beaten them this season.
Solskjaer must field his XI at its strongest, which poses a very interesting and now quite gnawing question; Edinson Cavani or Anthony Martial?
The latter began the early part of the season in sparkling form, yet veteran arrival Cavani has undertaken his settling in phase and looks like he means real business.
Solskjaer had been carrying out a neat balancing act of the two, but now it’s time to make a call. United’s favoured system dictates that only one, realistically, can start against the Gunners in north London.
So, who is it? Cavani versus Martial: Sportsmail takes a deeper dive into the numbers to find out.
Manchester United need to start firing again and the system determines only one can start
When it comes down to it, in this category, there is only one winner.
Cavani has been around the block and seen it all.
That is not to discredit Martial, who has made steady progress in the Premier League over the past few years and provided some sparkling moments along the way.
Right now, however, with the current United team over-performing against its initial expectations at the season’s inception, older heads are very much needed to keep things in order and prevent rogue defeats from evolving into something much more.
Cavani has vast experience and has shown it in the manner he has settled into United’s team
Of his 13 league matches so far for his new club, Cavani has started just four. Yet each time the Uruguayan seems to add something different to the fixture. He shows a remarkable ability to assess the game from the sidelines and determine what the team will be asking of him.
Against Liverpool, in the recent FA Cup victory, Cavani identified a lesser used pocket of space in the final third and set about occupying it immediately after his introduction.
This, in turn, brought the Liverpool line slightly higher and out of their current comfort zone, allowing Marcus Rashford the opportunity to run in behind. Cavani very nearly became the match winner himself with a thumping header against the post; a move which had initially been created by his earlier movement.
Experience is all fine and well, but who is actually putting the ball into the back of the net and getting things done?
Cavani’s transformative arrival against Southampton back in November served to show exactly what he is all about.
Entering the match with his side 2-1 down, Cavani made all the right runs and found all the necessary spaces to score two crucial goals and win the match – the final strike arriving in the 92nd minute of play.
With Martial, such maverick appearances are lesser seen.
Martial has the spark to bring games to life, but lags behind Cavani in terms of efficiency
The Frenchman has three more league appearances than Cavani and 10 more starts to his name, though has scored two fewer goals (only two in total).
Cavani – eight years Martial’s senior – has four league goals already despite having had just 530 minutes on the football pitch. Martial, in contrast, has had 1,152.
For all his contributing play in the final third, particularly pushing back defenders and allowing Bruno Fernandes and Rashford to attack space, goals still remains a part of Martial’s game which lacks.
Now, with United desperate to regain a cold-blooded streak of wins, Solskjaer is likely to be casting eyes over to Cavani’s direction.
When playing a front three, or a non-conventional attacking line different to a standard pairing, a manager must always consider what each of his stars bring to the table.
It’s a similar case with Liverpool, and Jurgen’s Klopp adoration for Roberto Firmino despite the Brazilian not ticking all the boxes of what would be expected from an orthodox striker.
This is where Martial comes into his own for Solskjaer, and one of the main reasons why the Norwegian loves having him in the team.
Though he is predominantly a goal threat and terrifies defenders with a sharp turn of pace and tidy footwork, Martial also has the ability to make things happen.
Martial’s wide skill-set proves a valuable asset as the Frenchman is able to make things happen
The 25-year-old has three assists to his name and has created 13 key chances during his 16 league appearances so far, averaging in at one key chance produced per game.
It’s a strong statistic, especially considering how commanding United have been in front of goal lately.
Cavani, in contrast, has two assists and four chances created – an average of 0.7 per game given the fewer matches he has played.
Martial is the most distinguished in this regard, yet this again shows just how much Cavani brings to the table.
He is already outscoring his team-mate, and has registered two assists despite the vast majority of his matches starting from the bench.
Irrespective of everything else a striker needs to be, first and foremost, ruthless.
In this category Martial cannot really compete.
Cavani has banged in goals in Italy, France and throughout the Champions League. He certainly knows where the back of the net is, and it’s showing.
As per current standings, Cavani is scoring a goal for United every 133 minutes. This, one could assume, is only set to improve as the player reaches full match fitness.
Martial meanwhile is finding the back of the net once every 576 minutes.
When it comes to shots, Martial has made 33 in total this season in the top flight, an average of 2.6 per 90 minutes.
Cavani’s superb positional plays means he takes fewer touches in the ball yet scores more
Cavani meanwhile, in his 13 appearances, has made 19 shots with an average of 3.2 per 90. The ruthless edge is all too apparent in the Uruguayan.
What’s more, eight of Cavani’s 19 have been on target, meaning 1.4 per match on average are challenging the goalkeeper. Martial lags marginally behind this with a average of 1.3.
It is conversion rate however where Cavani pushes himself into open water. His tally stands at a whopping 21.1, whereas Martial’s shot conversion rate is 6.1 at present, posing Solskjaer cause for concern.
To make matters worse, Martial takes far more touches in the opposition area. Figures show he has taken 89 this season, compared to Cavani’s meagre 30 inside the box.
Being an elite level striker is a game of instinct, and Cavani knows how to get the job done.
Both players have shown ample evidence of wanting to work hard for the team, but again here it is Cavani who marginally comes out on top.
The street-wise veteran is more than willing to put in the legwork up front and do the dirty duties to help his team-mates. Putting in the toil for the likes of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe at PSG has clearly paid off.
Cavani never shies away from going into a tackle and tries to win the ball high up the pitch
Cavani has made a huge six successful tackles so far this season in his 13 games. This doesn’t sound a lot, until it is considered that most centre-backs average around one per game.
Martial, in comparison, has made just one.
The Frenchman does earn plaudits back with his tally of ball recoveries. He has 27 compared to Cavani’s 16. Though a cynic could observe this and draw the conclusion that Martial loses possession more often than his team-mate, and has also played a greater amount of games.
It’s bad news for the former Monaco man.
On his day Martial can look formidable and appear every inch the £50million striker United made him when signing on the dotted line.
Yet right now United need to maintain momentum and avoid a possible collapse. For that they need assurance and reliability, and the man to provide that is Cavani.
The upwards trend in the statistics of the deadline day signing actually suggest Cavani is improving week by week, and playing the best teams is the division will likely rapidly enhance these results.
With Arsenal’s defence deemed shaky at the best of times, the Uruguayan will be desperate to get out at the Emirates on Saturday evening and add to his rapidly building United legacy.
Both strikers are fit and ready to go, and Solskjaer will no doubt leave it until late to make an executive decision.
The figures, however, have already drawn their own conclusion.