TACTICAL THOUGHTS: IS THERE A ROLE FOR SHINJI KAGAWA AT UNITED? 

“Shinji Kagawa is one of the best players in the world and he plays 20 minutes at Manchester United – on the left wing.” – Jurgen Klopp, Kagawa’s former manager at Borussia Dortmund.

A recurring theme of United’s play this season has been the lack of creativity with most of the focus around this issue has been on the midfield. Why is this? Does the midfield lack creativity or is it a case of the team not working as a whole to be more creative? It could be looked at in a number of ways, but what we do know is that, as Klopp says, United possess a world class player in Shinji Kagawa who has the ability to fill that creative gap. This begs three questions:

  • Why isn’t Kagawa getting more match time?
  • Why is he being deployed out of position, (as a wide left player) when he does play?
  • What is his best position?

In fairness to David Moyes all these questions pre-date his appointment as United manager. Kagawa joined United in the summer of 2012 from a highly successful Borussia Dortmund team that had just won back-to-back Bundesliga titles.

Last year he featured in 20 league games for United, often deployed as a wide left player; this season he has played in just 1. Many saw last season as a period of readjustment for the player in his first year at the club.  He frequently started games and often gave bright first half performances before fading after half time.  He was usually substituted in the second half with the question of his fitness and stamina often being raised.  His stand out performance was against Norwich in March, where he started on the left. Kagawa showed his true worth after the introduction of Welbeck on 66 minutes who replaced Kagawa on the left, moving to a central position where he played behind Rooney.  United scored three late goals, two by Kagawa and one by Rooney as the pair combined superbly well. The last fifteen minutes of this game saw perhaps United’s best attacking football of the season.

Some have questioned the player’s true level of ability, but those who do so should ponder that at Dortmund he was considered the key man amongst a group of esteemedplayers (Ilkay Gundogan, Marco Reus, Mario Gotze, Sven Bender, Mats Hummels, Robert Lewandowski) and he was twice named in the end of season Bundesliga Best XI.

Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund

Shouldn’t Kagawa be getting more match time? Moyes’ stock answer to this question to date is that he is not fully match fit. Kagawa had a busy summer at the Confederation’s Cup and returned late to pre-season training, but as the season goes on this reason more and more implausible. The problem for Kagawa is that during the early weeks (whilst he has no doubt been working on his match sharpness) Wayne Rooney has been one of our most consistent performers and probably our best player. This explains why Kagawa has had minimal match time so far; on current form if it comes down to a choice between the two, most people would go for Rooney, although we will come back to this question later.

This brings us to the second question: Why is he deployed out of position (as a wide left player) when he does play? Again, on the face of it, the answer is the same: Rooney is playing well.  We can’t leave this question there, though, as Kagawa was often played wide under Sir Alex and it would seem likely that as the season progresses Moyes will continue to accommodate Rooney by playing Kagawa wide when selected.  This is clearly a compromise that prevents United getting the most out of Kagawa’s talent. We should also consider whether this decision reflects Moyes’ philosophy, his tactical plan.  Does Rooney rather than Kagawa represent a better fit with the way Moyes wants to play?

Finally the third question: What is his best position?

Rooney is not a classic “Number 10”, he is naturally a deep lying forward who likes to play off the most advanced player with his first instinct being that of a goal scorer rather than a creator for those around him. Perhaps David Moyes shares this view, as he has reportedly given the player a goal-scoring target for the season. Rooney has of course spent a significant amount of his ten years at the club playing out of position himself in order to accommodate tactical plans or other players. Much of his discontent this summer seems to have been as a consequence of being asked to do this again last year. Conversely, Sir Alex’s concerns were with the player’s tactical discipline, culminating in his selection of the more disciplined but less accomplished Welbeck for the home leg of United’s Champions League tie with Real Madrid. That storm has now passed, (at least for the moment) with David Moyes choosing to play Rooney in his favoured second striker role, closer in position to van Persie.  This has changed United’s shape slightly in recent weeks and has resulted in the two front men often appearing isolated and the deep lying central midfield two regularly being overloaded by the opposition.  United’s shape has looked stretched, lacking a link between the midfield and attack as they have moved closer to a more rigid 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 and away from a more fluid 4-2-3-1.

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Kagawa is a Classic “Number 10”, technically gifted with quick feet and best used as an attacking central midfield player where his sound vision and distribution allows him to create space for others. His speed of thought and deed mean that he is highly effective playing between the lines just behind the attack where he can both create and make late runs into the box to score himself. Both these facets of his game were seen in the last fifteen minutes of the Norwich game. He is very composed on the ball and his pass selection is excellent; indeed he has the full range of passes in his armoury.  His movement is good and his darting runs ensure that he can find small areas of space for himself and also pull defences about, creating space for others.  He is ideally suited to playing centrally and if used in this area rather than out wide, then Kagawa is the best suited player to be the 3 in a 4-2-3-1 shape or the most advanced midfield player in a 4-3-3 shape. His lack of defensive nous means that he is not really suited to a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1.

It all comes down to how David Moyes wants to set his United side up. The choice between Rooney and Kagawa will tell us a lot about Moyes’ answer to this question.  Of course there are other ways of playing, as the ideal scenario would involve van Persie, Kagawa and Rooney featuring in a formation where all three could exploit their strengths, possibly with van Persie at the front and Kagawa and Rooney as a partnership of two behind.  This might mean sacrificing wide forwards for wing-backs to generate the required width and would seem to require a more radical tactical re-think than David Moyes has an appetite for.

Rooney is playing well and so would appear un-droppable. But many of the problems inherent in United’s recent performances would appear to stem from Rooney playing higher and closer to van Persie. Teams have found it easy to press United’s midfield in recent weeks, leaving the front two isolated.  United also suffer from a creativity deficit in the centre of the field.  During matches Moyes has tried to address this by asking Rooney to drop a little deeper in order to create a link.  This has had some effect but is only a partial solution; Rooney is reluctant to drop deeper and is not a player whose natural game is about creativity for others. Kagawa’s is.

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So Mr Moyes, is there a role for Shinji Kagawa at Manchester United?