First Team News

The Shinji Sudoku

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?

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By Sam McHale

Utd ST holder in the Stretford End. Lucky enough to be in Moscow '08, I eat, sleep and breathe football. Hoping - results permitting - to start Manchester Uni this September. You can follow me on Twitter: @Sam10McHale

13 replies on “The Shinji Sudoku”

Wtf,how could there be a negative in signing rvp when the guy single handedly racks up pts for us? Play 4-3-1-2 with rvp nd rooney upfront.

Nobody is implying that the signing of RvP is negative in any way. It simply shows the problems that SAF is faced with when setting up his team for games. There is no doubt that Kagawa’s time will come.
Great debate btw.

I agree that its confusing, but I see no negatives in the singing of RVP considering the start he had made. Its been incredible and I hope it continues. As for Kagawa we will need to find him a position because he is a quality player. However we need to adapt a little for him and he needs to adapt for us as well. I do see games where Kagawa might start on the left side as you demonstrated above. I have seen how effective Silva and Nasri perform the role for City and neither of them are natural wingers or very quick. They are all technical playmakers and are all capable of playing across the midfield.

Kagawa has one key skill and that is intelligence. We need to play possession football, but Kagawa can perform the left side role whilst also moving inside. It can work because we have the energy of Tom Cleverley playing alongside him in midfield, as well the Evra lung-busting runs down the left side. Cleverley will move over to the left if Kagawa moves inside. At the same time Kagawa will be linking up with Rooney. We can’t be so static with our team and in our play. Total football is the real ethos and it involves intelligence, movement and interplay between the players. The key is movement and players need to be able to move into each other positions.

I can also see Kagawa playing in the playmaker role as well and being used behind two strikers, likely to be RVP and Rooney. Our wingers have not be in great form this season, so it is definitely an option for us to go to a diamond formation again. The energy of Cleverley and Anderson could be a bonus as well and ensure a high tempo game for Man Utd.


However Anderson is injured at the moment which would leave Fletcher needing to play in that role, or just maybe Nick Powell. I feel more sorry for this lad because he doesn’t seem to be getting much of a look in when it comes to the Premier League. Ashley Westwood is getting a lot of good reviews for his performances for Aston Villa. We supposedly signed the star player of Crewe team in Nick Powell, so I hope he starts getting some chances soon.


Great analysis. I feel its all about understanding btw rooney and kagawa, remember the telephatic understanding btw rooney and ronaldo while he was around. Kagawa can start out out wide on d left and rooney behind rvp with quick interchange of positions during d course ofa game. That will also add a bit of surprise to our play.

Said japanese way too many times.



Would be fun to see one of those in our easier home games but we wont play a back 3. Can’t wait to see how it works out.

i think rooney and kagawa should replicate same thing silva and nasri does for shitty……..d game of natural wingers are in decline so we shud stick with d diamond incase we meet better team that plays possesive football in europe

Agree with Gabby about Kagawa/Silva but not Rooney. Rooney’s energy and presence along with his passing range in the #10 role allow him and the midfield 2 to get hold of games. Kagawa hasn’t been one to dictate play and has been more about fleeting moments of attacking brilliance. For us, unlike Dortmund, I think we need Rooney or a 3rd midfielder or we can’t get hold of games. For me, Kagawa should be tried on the left or played in the diamond. Personally the most effective minutes of football I’ve seen Kagawa play for us were in the 2nd half vs Spurs. He had the freedom to cut inside and play penetrating balls into the box without the pressure of having to dictate play. While he might be more comfortable in the hole, I’m not sure we have the players to accommodate him there and given the inconsistent form of our wingers this season, playing him on the left seems the best option

i feel much better if man-u play with the formation 433 by placing the right persie as a striker and rooney,kagawa played in my position right and left

“unfortunately for Kagawa, it’s going to be Rooney every time” Why? A player whose form fluctuates, and who doesn’t have anywhere near as much influence on matches/shape of team play as some would have you believe (Rooney also offers almost nothing defensively in the ten position). There is a reason why Fergie bought Kagawa and he recently alluded to it when he spoke of us playing too many “mid to wide balls”. We are too predictable and rely too heavily on wing play, and the chief exponent of this tactic is Rooney. He’s not very creative and too often doesn’t spot Van Persie’s forward runs, and by virtue of him playing in the creative hole we are thusly not very creative and not getting the best out of Van Persie.

For me Rooney is not a ten, he’s a nine. He’s effective centrally but not world class (which he is as a striker). Because of the lack of control we have when we play a 442/4411 I would echo Andrew’s formation and play Kagawa as the creative pivot at the tip of the diamond and Carrick at the bottom. Anderson and Cleverly’s energy/press in the centre would ensure control and allow Kagawa to get forward comfortably/freely. Then Rooney and Van Persie could occupy the opposition full backs by creating width (much like Ballotelli/Cassanno for Italy).

Given our resources this would be the best way to intergrate Kagawa and ensure Rooney is high up the pitch (again, his BEST position), and make us competitive. As great as the City win was we can’t afford good sides (ahem, Madrid), the kind of space we allowed City in the midfield and expect to continually get away with it. We are too easily overrun and this has nothing to do with Carrick’s suppossed lack of mobility as mentioned (he isn’t immobile, he has to sit because nobody else can do that job), but everything to do with the fact Fergie thinks he can play a two in midfield and that those two can compete with three or more central midfielders. Juve for example, would murder us centrally if we played a 442/4411.

Seeing as we possess a strikeforce that contains Van Persie, Welbeck and Rooney but lack any quality in wide areas it is clear that Kagawa would be best positioned starting from the left of a 4 man midfield rather than playing in the number 10 role and thus having two of the previously mentoned strikers occupying the bench. From this position he can come infield and get on the ball without being marked out of the game when constantly dropping deep to receive the ball, and bring a lot more variety to our play. With Nani offering quality width on the right hand side and Kagawa cutting in from the left side, our midfield will possess a lot more creativity than the dross which Youngy and Tony V are serving up from wide positions at the moment.

the best formation is one fergie already used once or twice 4-1-4-1

__rafa ___ferdi____vida_____evra_




this is the only one where united’s style of wing-play is still maintained while having rvp, rooney, and kagawa on at the same time. any other formation that lacks our wingers, anything like 4-3-3 with just attacking players and no wingers is something united always struggle with.

_rafa ___ferdi____vida_____evra_



Rooney RVP

What do you guys think of 4-3-1-2? i thnk it will solve all uniteds problems at the moment with want away rooney because of playing behind RVP and getting the best of kagawa……….

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