Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa is undoubtedly one of the most talented footballers of his generation. He made the footballing world stand to attention after two highly successful seasons at Borussia Dortmund from 2010 to 2012 and forged a formidable partnership with the similarly renowned Robert Lewandowski. He consequently generated much interest within Europe’s top teams and then moved to Manchester United, when a mixed 2012/2013 season followed. As an intelligent, creative force with an eye for a clinical pass and or a finish, Kagawa was sometimes an outstanding match-winner – but far too often, he merely merged into the shadows of the remaining 21 players on the pitch, failing to make a true impression on the game.
Now, in the early stages of 2013/2014, Kagawa is fit again after a delayed return to pre-season training and is ready to fire once again. He has sat on the bench for all four Manchester United matches so far this season and only made one appearance – against Wigan Athletic in the Community Shield – which is baffling considering how badly United struggled for creativity against Chelsea and in particular, Liverpool at Anfield. With the club confirming the signing of Marouane Fellaini on transfer deadline day and also managing to keep hold of apparent want-away striker Wayne Rooney, there is currently no obvious place for Kagawa to slot straight into. So what is his best bet?
During the first half of last season, Kagawa showed great form being played in the number 10 role behind a main striker, usually Robin van Persie. This – stated by Kagawa himself – is his preferred position to play in and it was easy to see why. Kagawa’s great strength is his ability to roam, pick up the ball and distribute it quickly and this characteristic allows him to be the lynchpin between the sitting, deeper central midfielders, the wingers and the one forward in front of him. It also permits and indeed encourages late ghosting in to the 18 yard box to pick up any balls pulled back from out wide. It is clear that this position is the one that suits his own qualities the best and his pre-eminent games last season, including the match against Norwich when he scored a hat-trick in a 4-0 victory, featured Kagawa playing behind the striker.
Later in the season, once Rooney and Javier Hernandez had overcome injury problems, Kagawa was then forced out wide in order to accommodate him and his good form, usually on the left hand side. However, this completely stunted and restricted the Japanese’s effectiveness. He is uncomfortable taking players on and being expected to beat a man and cross the ball, nor does he have great pace – so for sure, he is completely wasted when he is forced out wide. He was repeatedly played there just to allow him to have pitch time – ridiculous when United had four, and now five, talented wing players. He ended up having to drift inside to try and influence play which hindered United generally, as they are a side who base much of their football around genuine width. This is surely an unfeasible and unnecessary option for the coming season.
Manchester United’s wealth of attacking options means that they are unlikely to play with just the one striker too often for fear of causing unrest and being unable to play some of their most talented players, so Kagawa may well have to be accommodated in another way. The signing of Fellaini would signify that he is very much part of David Moyes’ plans and he will slot into midfield alongside Michael Carrick. That leaves four attacking places in the side. In an age when flexibility and variation are increasingly important in the game, van Persie and Rooney are nailed on to take their place in the side when both fully fit. Both are adept at dropping deeper and putting in a shift out wide. The two-footed Nani will be given a chance in the starting eleven having recently signed a new five-year deal with the club, with the canny ability to drift from wing to wing, after being given assurances by David Moyes of good playing time.
That leaves one space to fill and Kagawa is in all likelihood the man to plug the gap. As stated, he is not comfortable out on the wing, but in order for him to have the chance to play in his preferred position, he may have to compromise and fill in there just occasionally as part of a rotating front four. Just for argument’s sake, United could start a Champions League final like this tomorrow:
Carrick – Fellaini
Nani – Kagawa – Rooney
This would appear to be a well-balanced yet exciting front six that would give any side in Europe a very good game indeed. That is not to say United will have an easy ride this season – far from it, in fact – but it is probably the easiest way to accommodate Kagawa and his qualities in a fair way, as well as in a fashion that will not compromise and instead benefit the team.
There is no doubt about the fact that Kagawa needs pitch time very badly. All the above six players are fit and sniffing at the United first team, so why not try them out as soon as possible? Crystal Palace at home in a week’s time would seem a good place to try this system for sure, as it is a fixture the team should have enough quality to win regardless of the precise team formation or structure. That said, only time will truly tell when, how and where Kagawa will play. The above offers a sensible solution and only this week, the player has promised that he will fight for his place in the side that he acknowledges is full to the brim with attacking talent. United fans can only pray that the manager gives him a fair chance to show his true worth in the coming weeks. We know it is more than good enough.