The mystery of Shinji Kagawa and Man Utd
Since joining Manchester United last season, Shinji Kagawa has found it pretty tough going at Old Trafford. After an encouraging start where he was immediately thrust into the starting line up by Alex Ferguson, Kagawa suffered a succession of injuries and thenceforth struggled to break back into the team. He had bright spots, most notably his hat trick against Norwich, but generally the feeling was that he would be better next season.
Well, "next season" has become this season and if anything Kagawa’s situation has become worse, not better. After missing most of pre-season on international duty with Japan at the Confederations Cup, Kagawa has found himself seemingly on the fringe of new manager David Moyes’ plans. At times he has even had the ignominy of not even making the bench. Moyes has said that this is due to him not having had enough of a look at the Japanese midfielder.
Kagawa’s lack of playing time has led to Twitter campaigns to #freeshinji and has also drawn the ire of many Manchester United fans who have seen the team struggle for invention in key matches against Liverpool and Manchester City. They seem to feel that Kagawa’s play can make United less predictable and they may well be right but David Moyes appears to disagree at present.
The big question is: should Kagawa play and if so, in what position?
One reason David Moyes may be struggling to work Kagawa into the team is that he is not a player who fits neatly into any traditional position. At Dortmund he was played just behind Robert Lewandowski but to call him a playmaker would be inaccurate. He doesn’t demand the ball like a number 10 and doesn’t really look to orchestrate attacks. He does not really have the pace and trickery to be a conventional winger nor the strength to play in central midfield. So what is he exactly?
In my mind, Kagawa is more of a facilitator, a bit like a moving wall. If you ping a pass at him he can play it on first time. He’ll move into space and run with it if necessary but he’ll also play the ball back to you straight away if that’s what’s needed. He’s also adept at sneaking in behind defences and turning up for goals, not in a constantly lurking around the penalty box sort of way but more as an unexpected visitor who magically appears in the right spot. He’s at his best bringing out the best in his teammates rather than gathering all the plaudits himself.
As a result, sometimes his work can go unnoticed. An unseen dart to the right that opens up space for Rooney does not capture the imagination like a 25 yard screamer. In a sense, Kagawa’s influence shouldn’t really be calculated in terms of how many goals he’s scored, key passes he’s made or dribbles he’s completed, but rather in how the team performs with and without him in the team. The irony is that such an impact can only be judged when a player plays a substantial number of games.
So is Kagawa a type of player that Manchester United need? At present the answer is probably yes. Going forward United seem to be struggling for fluidity and have relied upon the magic of Rooney and van Persie alongside predictable wing play from Valencia and Ashley Young. Kagawa’s presence could help to open up more space for the likes of van Persie and Rooney and open up new, less obvious passing angles, adding greater variety to their attacks. Kagawa could also chip in with a few goals whilst defences are preoccupied with stopping United’s two superstars.
The next question then becomes where exactly should Kagawa play. With Rooney in outstanding form it is very unlikely that Kagawa will play behind the striker. Indeed, this may not even be his best position given that these days van Persie is less of a creator and more of an out and out striker. This would require Kagawa to take on playmaking duties to which he is not particularly suited. Instead, the left wing may actually be the spot that would suit Kagawa best.
Despite Jurgen Klopp’s despair at seeing Kagawa shunted out to the wing, Moyes has previous playing with a more centrally minded left winger. At Everton, Steven Pienaar was nominally placed on the left but would often cut in allowing the onrushing Baines to overlap. Everton would then utilise Pienaar’s strong passing to find open players with the defense distracted by Baines’ run. Moyes could do a similar thing with Kagawa and Evra.
What makes the situation at United more exciting than a simple left-sided combination however, is that in Wayne Rooney, United have a player of significant footballing intelligence. By allowing Kagawa and Rooney some freedom to switch positions, United could wreak havoc with opposing defenses. Both are intelligent passers and movers and have shown signs of a growing understanding. The prevailing wisdom is that Rooney dislikes playing on the wing but this seemed more about not being the main man rather than a particular positional problem. With Kagawa as his partner, Rooney would still very much be the main man and if anything, Kagawa would work to get the best out of his more illustrious teammate.
This is essentially how Kagawa plays in the Japanese national team where the number 10 spot is occupied by CSKA Moscow’s Keisuke Honda, a broadly similar type of player to Wayne Rooney. Although it took a little time for this approach to gel, in recent games the understanding between Honda and Kagawa has been a joy to watch with the duo combining beautifully to fashion numerous chances. There is no real reason why Kagawa would not be able to do a similar thing with Wayne Rooney.
In truth, the reason for leaving Kagawa out may be more due to Moyes’ initial caution rather than any particular failing of Kagawa’s. Moyes has a phenomenally difficult job following the footsteps of Alex Ferguson and he has been handed a grueling early season schedule. It is unsurprising that he has opted for a more conventional formation that would, in theory at least, prevent the presence of any obvious defensive holes. This is just about acceptable (even if it hasn’t necessarily worked) against tough opposition, but greater tactical invention will be expected once the fixture list settles down.
Whilst Kagawa is no doubt frustrated at his lack of opportunities under David Moyes, he should give the new manager a chance to work him into his plans. Kagawa has made some appearances and Moyes is no fool despite all the opprobrium foisted upon him. If Kagawa is still having difficulty getting into the team come Christmas that may be the time to start looking for a move. For now, patience is a virtue.