There should be no doubting Shinji Kagawa’s class. During the 2011/2012 season he was a genuine contender for the best player in the Bundesliga – a title that went to Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Marco Reus, the player who would replace Kagawa at Borussia Dortmund. The campaign marked the pinnacle of the Japanese player’s career to date.
Kagawa, who started his career as a defensive midfielder in the second tier of Japanese football, was initially deployed as a goal-scoring attacking midfielder at Dortmund. That changed with the absence of Nuri Sahin and Mario Gotze in Kagawa’s second season at the German club, which forced the Japanese to share the playmaking duty as well.
Kagawa excelled in the role.
The Japan international is quick, agile, technically sound and intelligent. Combined with his excellent work ethic, these traits made him a highly effective playmaker. In fact, towards the end of Kagawa’s two year tenure at Dortmund, BVB manager Jürgen Klopp relieved him of all defensive duties and had him just prowl the field.
The former Cerezo Osaka player took up good positions, waited for the ball to find him and launched devastating counterattacks with the sort of quick, incisive passing Manchester United fans have seen just glimpses of to date.
Sir Alex Ferguson clearly intended to use Kagawa as a number 10. The midfielder was deployed in the position throughout United’s pre-season programme. The trend continued when the Premier League started, Kagawa impressing many in United’s defeat at Everton on the opening day.
But he was soon back on the bench even as Wayne Rooney, the incumbent number 10, struggled to regain fitness. As it turns out, the Japanese failed to make impact and ended up injured himself.
Since returning from injury Kagawa has been primarily used on the left. The form, or rather lack of it, of United’s wide players might have prompted Ferguson’s thinking, but given the Japanese has been used in such a specific way by the United manager there might actually be a genuine, tactical aim behind the move.
Kagawa nominally starts on the left flank, but rarely hits the byline as a traditional winger might. Nor does he attack the box as ‘inverted’ wingers are wont to do. Instead, Kagawa almost invariably quickly drifts infield, offering a passing option in the middle. In United’s recent game against Stoke City, for example, the former Dortmund player often dropped back into United’s half in search of space and the ball.
Deploying a nominal winger to retain the ball in the middle is not new. Andreas Iniesta performs the same role for both Barcelona and Spain. David Silva and Samir Nasri play the same role at Manchester City. Sir Alex has used Ryan Giggs in the role many times in the recent era. In fact, a modern history of ‘ball retaining wingers’ at United goes all the way back to the early noughties when Paul Scholes occasionally found himself on the left flank.
Kagawa hasn’t yet convinced the fans that he can do a good job on the left. More enlightened United supporters argue that he can’t show his true worth as a left winger, citing Kagawa’s indifferent form on the left for Japan.
The key to this argument is that playmakers do their best work when the play is directed through them – the more time on the ball, the better the playmaker’s influence on the game. In fact, it is an argument that Kagawa made himself, shortly after joining the club.
“We seem to pass the ball sideways a lot,” said the 24-year-old. “I want team-mates to start giving me the ball from all areas and angles. I need to speak to them about this, because I want them to have the trust in me to play the ball forward. ”
Adding more recently: “I have the most experience from my time at Dortmund in playing behind the striker. However, I just want to be part of the team, I will play wherever the manager wants to me to play”
The argument is true, but United’s players are more accustomed to channeling attacks through the flanks than through a central playmaker. Kagawa might even see more of the ball on the left than in the middle.
After all, while Kagawa starts on the left his movement into the middle can allow United a moment of dominance in central midfield. And there are few players in the world better than Robin Van Persie at making something of the inevitable through pass or quick one-two that takes the ball into the box.
If Kagawa’s deployment on the left is indeed purposeful rather than temporary, the United manager must look at options during the summer to better take advantage of it.
Key is a central midfielder who can break through the lines, adding further dominance in the attacking midfield area. Tom Cleverley certainly makes clever runs, but he is physically unimposing and lacks finishing skills. A midfielder who can strongly challenge for 50-50 balls and shoot from distance might also be welcome.
Priority, however, lies on the other flank. If United play through Kagawa, and only Kagawa, it will be easy for opponents to stop. On the opposite flank, United’s right-winger must do his share of attacking to provide variety and unpredictability. The classic winger vis-à-vis Antonio Valencia at his peak would certainly do.
With Rafael da Silva more than capable of attacking the byline and providing crosses, a right-winger who looks to cut in and attack the box would also fit in well. It remains to be seen whether Wilfried Zaha, who primarily plays on the right, but cuts inside, can be groomed into a United quality winger of this variety.