The summer transfer window has been a disappointment for Manchester United. While Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur have each conducted extensive business throughout pre-season United have struggled, leading to fan frustration and a puncture to the buzz that should surround the beginnings of a title defence by the reigning champions.
However, in many ways the past few weeks and months have been the famine following the feast of last year. After all, even before the surprise capture of Robin van Persie in August 2012, the club had already moved early and decisively to bring in one of the most exciting young talents in Europe. It seemed as though Sir Alex had found the long-term successor to Paul Scholes and a solution to United’s long-standing midfield crisis.
The signing of Shinji Kagawa was seen as an epiphany. The Japanese was the Bundesliga player of the year yet somehow the club had snatched him away from the double winning German champions Borussia Dortmund for just £12m plus add-ons. News of his transfer was met with a stream of aspirational YouTube compilations, excitable blogs full of conjecture on what his arrival meant for United’s tactics and style, and a seemingly endless gallery of images painting him as the highly skilled, battleground playmaker the club was crying out for. A goal scoring, tactically astute, technically sound and determined attacking midfielder, he was to be the Red Samurai, ready to follow on from the Ginger Prince.
A year on, the #FreeShinji hash tag rings out across Twitter. With Wayne Rooney unavailable through either injury or transfer intrigue, Manchester United have once again looked short of ideas and players in midfield, with Kagawa nowhere to be seen. His lack of starting appearances, or selection on the subs bench, have inspired all kinds of rumours, from a swap-deal return to Dortmund to some big money move to Paris Saint-Germain.
Yet Kagawa’s absence from United’s squad lists so far this season have not been due to a snubbing by his new manager David Moyes. Having spent the summer playing competitive football in an intense and highly energetic Japan team (Kagawa was named man of the match against Italy), Shinji returned from international duty in the Confederations Cup unrested and unready for preseason training.
Fans and pundits alike need to remember that it was an insufficient pre-season with United last year that derailed Kagawa’s start at the club. An early injury disrupted him and his attempts to not only assert himself as a key player at Old Trafford, but also from settling into into the first team and finding a way to meld his game with United’s brand of football. There were moments where we saw flashes of his true ability last season – his hat trick against Norwich City was but a taste of the sort of displays through which he made his name in Germany – but on the whole he was prevented from proving himself due to the early downtime suffered through injury, with his resulting lack of match fitness a difficult problem to resolve once the season was underway and picking up speed.
Even without the injuries last year, Kagawa may well have found it difficult to make his mark. Towards the end of last season, I questioned whether Sir Alex Ferguson struggled with more specialist, creative players, judging by the past disappointments of Veron and Poborsky. Often preferring players who were more obviously able to take care of themselves, both in body and mind, there was a sense that Ferguson could never quite bring himself to trust flair players that lacked that sense of bite. His faith in Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs was as much due to their iron will and tenacity as it was their ability to conjure up magic from nothing when needed.
Having watching the man who brought him to Old Trafford retire to become a Director at the club, Kagawa would be excused for wondering whether the little chance he had of first team football has moved upstairs. Then again, while he may be disgruntled by the apparent lack of interest shown by David Moyes so far, the former Everton manager could well be the ideal man to unlock his talent and get the best out of Kagawa at United. Moyes’ work with Steven Pienaar at Everton – not to mention his interest in the Bundesliga – should be of great interest
to Kagawa, who could yet find himself being treated with far more care and consideration under the new Scotsman’s’ reign. At least that’s the opinion from an optimist’s point of view.
Over the past few years, Moyes would often deploy Pienaar on the left but tucked in to allow the attacking midfielder to work the channels and direct the play centrally, while the full-back – usually Leighton Baines – bombed on, overlapping or under-lapping as required. With Patrice Evra able to explode down the left, as well as cut in and provide a direct threat to opposing defences, such a set up should be relatively simple to recreate at United. Such an arrangement has arguably already been put in place.
In United’s first three games this season, the team have lined up in a lob-sided 4-4-2 come 4-4-1-1 arrangement, with Danny Welbeck and Ryan Giggs trading places between the hole and left-wing, with Antonio Valencia providing the width on the right. The persistent selection of Giggs has drawn plenty of ire from the media, but judging by his role the veteran Welshman could well be playing as a placeholder for Kagawa, floating between the left wing and centre to thread balls forward, facilitate the team’s passing game and beat players one-on-one.
By using Giggs while Kagawa recovers his fitness and sharpness, the Japanese can be eased into the new season while his role is quietly trialled within the team’s tactics. A proper build up to the season, with the other first team players growing used to how he will be integrated within the side, should allow Kagawa to flourish in and around Christmas, reaching a peak in the run-in rather than burning out early on, or risking injury.
Some may find the idea of Giggs representing Kagawa as a strange idea given the former’s predilection for so-called Hollywood balls and dicey forward passes that can often gift the other team possession of the ball, but the two players are broadly similar and comparable. Perhaps due to his continental pedigree, many in the UK have come to assume that Kagawa is something of a passive and discreet player, yet this is far from the case. As a midfielder he is very direct and goal focused, with the awareness (if not always the physicality) to break up play and press the opposition from the front. In the words of his devoted, former manager at Dortmund, Jurgen Klopp:
“Central midfield is Shinji’s best role. He’s an offensive midfielder with one of the best noses for goal I’ve ever seen.”
Kagawa’s best football at Dortmund came when playing alongside Ilkay Gundogan, and he certainly benefits from having a dynamic midfielder playing behind him, offering forward runs from deep, passing options and one-two interplays. As evidenced by United’s attempts to sign Thiago, Fabregas, Modric and, if rumours are to be believed, Gundogan himself, Moyes sees upgrading this position within the team as a top priority. Tom Cleverley, although a young player who has shown great discipline and value as a hard working and fairly tidy midfielder under his new manager, isn’t good enough on an individual level to meet the match winning demands and European aspirations of the team. Instead, he is the evidence rather than the identity of the type of player needed in the middle as a robust and powerful playmaker. His combination with Carrick is very complimentary, and it’s clear that the club wish to find a superior footballer already imbued with the qualities that make the Englishman such a good midfield partner.
Should United fail to attract the sort of player needed to supercharge this vital pivot at the centre of the team, Kagawa may not have to go without a creative and lively team mate to interact with through the spine of the team. While Rooney started the summer by demanding games up front, he has since climbed down to declare he would play anywhere so long as he is first choice and Manchester United. His vision and passing range, as well as his much improved professionalism when it comes to his fitness and conditioning, suggests he could well be an interesting option to deploy as United’s box-to-box dynamo, in the all-action, goal scoring style of Bryan Robson perhaps. Playing Rooney in midfield would also alleviate the competition for positions that last year also saw Kagawa stripped of game time, and offer up even more fluid, position swapping; Rooney, Kagawa, Welbeck and co all bursting forward, dropping deep, pulling wide, cutting in and so on.
Regardless of the details though, once Kagawa is match ready he just has to play. David Moyes will remain to many an unconvincing and unworthy successor to Ferguson for some time to come. His Evertonian background has armed many critics with arguments over his big club mentality and suitability. Other than silverware, configuring Manchester United’s game plan to get the most out of such a modern and sophisticated attacking player as Shinji Kagawa would surely rank high on the list of goals the new manager could aim to tick off in order to support his appointment this season.
Whether played in a 4-3-3 or fluid 4-4-2, Kagawa will add some much needed decisiveness and creativity to United’s build up play. He adds something different again to the diverse mix of tones and styles that make up United’s attacking stock: van Persie, Welbeck, Hernandez, Rooney, Zaha, Nani and the like. So far this season, his composure and keenness on the ball have been sorely missing, especially against Chelsea and Liverpool, but also against Swansea where individual brilliance won the day. If Moyes can solve the Kagawa conundrum, he may well also end up unlocking the key to making his vision for Manchester United work, knitting the team together into a coherent and effective unit, with or without a landmark midfield signing.
After all, in Shinji Kagawa we may already have one.