The Sudoku is one of those fiendishly difficult Japanese puzzles; a puzzle that can become increasingly difficult as you attempt to solve it. A bit like the puzzle of how Utd can best utilise Shinji Kagawa, the Japanese playmaker the Reds shelled out something in the region of 13 million pounds for this summer.
I was thrilled when it was first announced that the Reds had struck a deal with Borussia Dortmund for Kagawa. Having watched a fair bit of Bundesliga action over the last couple of years, the reported fee of £13 million seemed to be a relative snip in an era of vastly-inflated transfer fees. The Japanese international had been instrumental in Dortmund’s successes over the last two seasons and a hero of the infamous Sudtribune, with the Dortmund supporters even recording a song for the diminutive playmaker.
During his time at Dortmund, the German champions usually lined up in a 4-4-1-1 formation. In the second half of the 2010/11 season – after the prodigious Mario Gotze picked up a serious injury – Kagawa assumed the role of the number ten probing behind Paraguayan international Lucas Barrios. Behind the Japanese playmaker sat Nuri Sahin and one of Sebastian Kehl or Sven Bender. This defensive shield left Kagawa free to inflict damage in the final third with the Japanese international contributing 10 goals and 2 assists in 26 appearances; more than respectable statistics considering it was his first season in European football.
In the 2011/12 season, Kagawa kept his place as the playmaker-in-chief sitting just behind reported Utd target and Polish international striker Robert Lewandowski with whom he struck up an almost telepathic relationship. Behind him sat the impressive Ilkay Gundogan – who replaced Nuri Sahin after he’d left for Real Madrid – and one of Kehl or Bender. Kagawa’s statistics were even more impressive: his 17 goals and 10 assists in 42 appearances integral to Dortmund’s victorious season and resulting in Kagawa being named the Bundesliga’s Player of the Year.
The 2012 German Cup Final was perhaps one of Kagawa’s finest games for Borussia, the Japanese international playing an instrumental role in their 5-2 win over rivals Bayern Munich to complete the League and Cup Double.
Borussia’s 3rd goal in that game highlighted Kagawa at his best. The first image shows Kagawa (circled) sprinting in behind the Bayern defence to collect the flick on from Lewandowski.
The second image shows Kagawa (again, circled) having collected the ball before dissecting the Bayern defence with a perfectly-timed and perfectly-weighted return ball to Lewandowski which the Pole gratefully accepted, finishing past Manuel Neuer to put Dortmund 3-1 up.
It was clear from watching the Japanese international that he is most effective in the traditional number 10 role; a role which allowed him to exploit the space between the opposition’s midfield and defence. Whilst not neglecting his defensive duties, it was clear that Dortmund’s formation with two deeper-lying midfielders allowed Kagawa the freedom to operate higher up the pitch safe in the knowledge that there was defensive protection behind him.
I therefore saw Kagawa’s signing as heralding a switch in Utd’s formation from a traditional 4-4-2 to a 4-4-1-1 with Kagawa probing behind Wayne Rooney and reducing Utd’s reliance on the wingers for creativity. Then, before that partnership even had the chance to gel, it’s death knell was sounded as Utd announced the capture of last-season’s Premier League top scorer Robin van Persie from rivals Arsenal for a £24 million fee. Suddenly, I was left wondering exactly where Kagawa was going to fit into United’s line-up and whether we’ll ever see the best of him at Old Trafford. Obviously, you can’t turn down an opportunity to sign a player of the calibre of van Persie but his presence certainly provides problems as to which position Kagawa is going to play in. Having said that, I will now examine possible ways in which Kagawa can be assimilated into the Utd line-up.
Here Kagawa would start in the position he thrived in at Dortmund. Playing just behind the main striker would allow him the space between the lines to influence the game. This is the position the Japanese international lined up in at the start of the season when he showed glimpses of the danger he can cause with his clever movement and late dashes into the box.
However, Rooney also likes to play in the position just behind van Persie and playing Kagawa there would mean that Rooney would have to play on the wing; a position in which he’s not particularly effective. If it comes down to a choice of Rooney or Kagawa playing in that role behind van Persie, unfortunately for Kagawa, it’s going to be Rooney every time.
This formation would see Kagawa line up in a central midfield duo. Although this could be an option in games where United are likely to dominate possession, it’s probable that in a lot of games this formation would lead to United being over-run in midfield as Kagawa isn’t a true box-to-box central midfielder. Similarly, Carrick – although undoubtedly integral to United – isn’t the most mobile of players and so you could easily see United losing control of central midfield with this formation.
One potential option for the manager is to play Kagawa out wide as he has done on occasions for the Japanese national team. Whilst doing so would allow the manager to play Kagawa, Rooney and van Persie in the same team, it was clear from watching him during his time at Dortmund that Kagawa feels more comfortable in a central position where his quick darting runs and neat interplay can cause problems for defenders. Another problem is that he doesn’t possess blinding pace or a bag full of tricks and so United possess better options out wide than the Japanese international. You also get the sense that Kagawa would drift infield in an effort to get his foot on the ball which could leave the full-back exposed. Certainly, you wouldn’t get the best out of Kagawa by playing him out wide.
Here, the Reds would line up in a 4-3-2-1 formation with van Persie up front, Kagawa and Rooney probing just behind the Dutchman and Carrick, Anderson and Cleverley providing a mobile central midfield. It would allow both Kagawa and Rooney to play in that deeper role that they are both extremely effective in providing them with the opportunity to link the play together.
Although this formation does go against the United ethos of playing with natural width, with none of the Reds wingers having been in sparkling form so far this season, this formation could be the greatest option in terms of getting the best out of the Japanese international whilst keeping the team balanced.
Whilst Kagawa’s forthcoming return of injury will certainly provide the manager with a wealth of attacking options, I think it’s clear to see that it will also pose a series of dilemmas for him. Can the manager play Kagawa in a position which will get the best out of him? Can Kagawa, Rooney and van Persie all fit into the starting line-up and more importantly start in positions where they will be most effective? Can the manager keep the team balanced whilst fitting the aforementioned trio into the side? These are all questions that we will undoubtedly see the answers too over the course of the season. For now, I feel that if there is a slight negative of van Persie’s signing, it’s that we may never see the best of Shinji Kagawa at Old Trafford.
Do you agree/disagree with my views? Which position do you think Kagawa should play in?