Kagawa’s new role offers attacking balance and a defensive headache

October 27, 2013 Tags: Opinion 53 comments
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Shinji Kagawa hadn’t been given a real opportunity by David Moyes, with no apparent rationale, until Manchester United’s victory over Real Sociedad last week. However, the European game and subsequent encounter with Stoke City, have demonstrated not only the Japanese player’s abilities, but also Moyes’ tactical nous in adapting to changing circumstances this season.

The seemingly innocent observation that the ball moves faster than the player has led to the proliferation of direct football over the years, especially in Britain. While never matching the extremes of long-ball sides of the past, Moyes’ United side had initially focused on a rigid structure and a direct approach.

The 4-1 defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad led to the method being abandoned, with changes in both attack and defence in recent weeks.

Perhaps forced by injuries to Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones have been playing at the back in recent matches. The pair’s youth and speed have allowed the Reds to push forward and squeeze the field of play. With Michael Carrick shielding United’s defence, the Geordie’s partner can motor forward at last. This tactic allows a center back, usually Evans, to carry the ball forward and allow more advanced players to take up positions higher up the field.

Kagawa’s return to the side, albeit nominally on the left, has coincided with this change in the new United manager’s strategy. The current plan, as witnessed against Sociedad and Stoke, offers greater fluidity up-front, although the relative lack of structure and shape can leave the Reds extremely vulnerable at the back. Possession is paramount if United is to avoid coming under increasing defensive pressure.

One of Kagawa’s greatest strengths is his ability to take balls under pressure and release it quickly to another teammate. Crucially, the former Borussia Dortmund playmaker is constantly on the move and offers an easy passing option for whatever Red is in possession, at the same time relieving opposition pressure.

In terms of passing, only Carrick bettered Kagawa in the match against Stoke City; the 66.3 per cent possession United enjoyed at Old Trafford is the direct consequence of Kagawa’s tireless running and search for space.


The Stoke game saw the Japanese occasionally dropping extremely deep to take the ball from a defender under duress. Evans passed to Kagawa just as much as he did to Carrick – nine passes to each.

While, Kagawa created little in terms of chances, his off the ball movement enabled others to come into the game and, crucially, allowed United to attack through the middle, and not rely solely on predictable balls delivered from out wide. Meanwhile, Robin van Persie enjoyed his best game since the season opener against Swansea City, with Kagawa the key element linking the Dutchman with the rest of the team.

Patrice Evra faced little opposition yet constantly allowed Stoke forwards to slip in unmarked from his flank. For example, the visitor’s opening goal was conceded with Evans outmanned two-to-one and the Frenchman missing an opposition playing running into the box.

One solution to this long-standing problem could be to deployed a disciplined player such as Danny Welbeck on the left, and choose between Kagawa and Wayne Rooney at number ten. However, this is not only unlikely for political reasons, but the former Everton player’s natural tendency to move towards the left greatly compliments the Japanese midfielder’s movements towards the middle. Kagawa passed to Rooney 16 times during the fixture against Stoke, with the former allowing the Englishman to make a number of dangerous late runs into the box.

At this point Kagawa might just be ecstatic being on the pitch after missing out for much of the campaign to date. Yet, the role Moyes is imposing on the Japanese is significantly different from that the former Dortmund player is used to. Instead of having an attacking approach revolving around him as in Germany, Kagawa is now helping his teammates drive the game forward.

The fact that Nani was taken off for Adnan Januzaj and Tom Cleverley substituted for Javier Hernandez with United chasing a goal, however, does indicate that Moyes finally considers Kagawa an important piece of the attacking puzzle.

Now Moyes must find a solution to some very obvious defensive problems.


sam - October 27, 2013 Reply

simple, never mind a rant. He’s a better player than Carrick Cleverly Giggs (now) Valencia NANI (5 year deal mother of Jaysus)

basi_ - October 27, 2013 Reply

Kagawa is d player utd is searching 4 in d market. Who is cabella to kagawa or cesc or hernanes. Kagawa is a better player 2 dese guyz. Young should be treated d way adebayo is being treated at spurs. Fellaini shld nevabe paired with carrick coz dey play d same way and carrick being a beta player. Dis formation shld suite utd
De gea,rafael,evans,vidic,evra,carrick,kagawa,januzaj,zaha rooney,van persie.
Subs:lindergaard,jones,fellaini,nani valencia chicharito

TheHumbleGent - October 28, 2013 Reply

Iz dat message a piss take yeah? Dat formsation is well good is well good innit an’ ting!

Speak properly you tit.

ardi budi jatmiko - October 27, 2013 Reply

he’s better than nani ! Kagawa’s new role offers attacking balance and a defensive headache #unitedrant http://t.co/Vyk95ZQKqi

Mongoletsi - October 27, 2013 Reply


Hans Hubermann - October 27, 2013 Reply

one of the best written articles I’ve seen

dave howard - October 27, 2013 Reply

shame its our defence with the headache though

Ed - October 27, 2013 Reply

Good article.
Big fan of Kagawa’s, he is a subtle and very intelligent player. I think the answer in solving the defence problems caused in kagawa’s inclusion into the team is about moyes being more flexible with formation.
I think that even though not a traditional united formation, we could try wing backs or a more flexible/ fluid 442 with the following:
De Gea
Smalling /Jones. Vidic. Evans.
Rafael / Valencia. Evra / Buttner / Fabio.
Janujzi. Kagawa.

We lack a good enough partner for carrick in midfield, evra is weak defensively, evans/jones & smalling all developing/ inconsistent. Wingers aren’t doing the business, janujzi & kagawa are much more fluent attacking midfielders rather than your out and out wingers, we need to be creative with our formations and tactics to get the best out of our squad strength and isolate the weaknesses. Fellani in the back 3 may work at home as well.

shinji 香川真司 ☆彡 - October 27, 2013 Reply

amazing read backed up with stats, everything will go in place and tick! give time

ak - October 27, 2013 Reply

That wat i keep try to tell moyes with my comments in every united sites. Finally you show it now. Kagawa shine in central.

Mongoletsi - October 27, 2013 Reply

I’m sure Moyes is grateful.

Archilist - October 27, 2013 Reply

With the addiction of kagawa in the ball makes lyf easy for manunited and junazaj i really lyk the substitution i pray we improve

Dayus D red - October 27, 2013 Reply

The first goal was Evans’s fault. Should have cut out the cross. He then reacted late after De gea made a very good save. With the set of central mid fielders we have, United will continue to struggle with the 4 4 2 that we play. Carrick and Felliani are not the quickest and Cleverly has no confidence on the ball therefore he releases it as soon as he gets. Our wingers are equally not equipt to handle the system hence the no of goals we have conceeded from crosses by either opposition wingers or wingbacks bcos our wingers refused or failed to track back. Like i said a while ago we are in a catch 22 situation. We either stick to the 442 and hope for the best or change to the more flexible 433 and face the wrath of Wayne Rooney who is refusing to play in any position other than an attack.

Kentosuga - October 27, 2013 Reply

Sori,is lik u didnt watch d match,d first goal wasnt Evans fault bt rather Smalling bcos dat right wing was so porous dat evn dat crosses 4 dat goal came out from dere. Rahfeal wuld av bin a prefered choice 2 Smalling bcos smalling is suitable in central role nt wing,hw wuld u asses d sdmalling aganist d match manutd played city.

Mongoletsi - October 27, 2013 Reply

Say whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?

Andrew - October 27, 2013 Reply


Hyder - October 27, 2013 Reply

Exactly brother! Smalling was d weak spot. I wud av prefered Rapheal.

Touljier - October 27, 2013 Reply

What u just say ?????? Is that a new language?

metkel - October 27, 2013 Reply

best line up with stoke city. Kagawa gives possession to z team. Well done with z substitution moyes!

alex - October 27, 2013 Reply

Well I think we have improved significantly since our draw with Southampton. The whole idea is to keep scoring if you can’t keep your opponents from scoring and with time the defence will pick up. It happened two seasons back under SAF.I saw the player rating on goal.com and felt it was totally wrong, how comes the Stoke players were given more credit. Going down twice in a game would take the steam out of any team but we fought back twice and went on to win it. Lets stay focused we will get there.

Ayo - October 27, 2013 Reply

nice article…sometime back i made an observation that just as in the case of mourinho & mata,until moyes recognises kagawa’s talents,he would keep having attacking headaches.What i admired most about kagawa’s game is the way he keeps the game ticking especially in the middle of the pack despite being deployed on the left,he offers a fluidity that has been missing in previous games & thankfully,his confidence is coming back now.

Khalam Ameen - October 27, 2013 Reply

kagawa n rooney staying

Gaurav - October 27, 2013 Reply

Good article JS. Do you think though, that he could still be a 20-goal a season midfielder? After all, that’s why he was bought…

Godfrey - October 27, 2013 Reply

I think Moyes sh’d used 4 4 2 formation i.e De Gea as a goal keeper plus 4 defenders then Nani & Januzaj on flanks Carrick as holding midfielder the kagawa as an attacking midfielder & the use Rooney & Van persie as strikers

dave - October 27, 2013 Reply

would swap carrick (far to slow & predictable) for a pacy playmaker, alongside fellani, with kagawa, rooney & janujzi behind van persie. I think carricks our problem, slows the game down to much.
fabregas would have been perfect.

Denton Davey - October 27, 2013 Reply

Ed @ 2:10: “We lack a good enough partner for carrick in midfield”

No kidding; actually, UTD already have two “good enough partners” for MC16 – it seems apparent that MrJones is a liability as a CB but he could be useful as the holding-player (like Gattuso) to release Carrick for the Pirlo “quarterback” role OR, much more obviously, TheWayneBoy could be slotted into TheScholesRole.

OR, maybe, MrJones and TheWayneBoy could be tried as a partnership – sacrilege ? OR a more athletic pairing ?

Whenever I make this suggestion – TheWayneBoy -> midfield in TheScholesRole – punters tell me that Rooney lacks “defensive discipline” which is, of course, true. SAF saw this as a problem – and TheWayneBoy paid the price but now, it seems, he is getting the last-laugh as the new manager has been compulsively brown-nosing him and catering to his sense of entitlement in playing TheWayneBoy “where-he-wants” rather than using him as an asset and deploying him in a role that would benefit the T-E-A-M.

When Rooney is playing as the so-called #10, he gums things up in the attacking zone, too, because he lacks “positional discipline” so he tends to go all RoyOfTheRovers and tries to do everything himself. Did’ya notice that when Chicharito came on and UTD effectively switched to an attacking 4-2-3-1 that the winning goal was scored ?

So far this season has been characterized by stop-start play and a huge amount of experimentation. Inadvertently – but, entirely not by accident – the new manager seems to have stumbled on what has been blindingly obvious: 4-4-2 won’t work and KagawaBunga needs to play. Those “discoveries” have a number of corollaries – touchline-hugging wingers is soooo yesterday; MC16 needs an aggressive partner; and TheWayneBoy’s sense of entitlement is actually counter-productive for the T-E-A-M.

Having sorted that out, what about the central defence ?

Mongoletsi - October 27, 2013 Reply

Hi DaveySadCuntDenton.

As usual, your ridiculous schoolgirl nicknames are a source of frustration. I usually agree with your points tho (after crying inside at the nicknames). But this time, you suggest partnering Phil Jones with Rooney? Wtf?

twat - October 28, 2013 Reply

I just can’t get past the ridiculous schoolgirl nicknames. The instant any of them are spotted I feel obliged to move to the next post. I have no idea whether I agree with anything he ever says because I have never successfully read an entire one of his posts.

mongoletsti - October 29, 2013 Reply

Phew! Thought it was just me being a narcy bastard! It really is baffling…

Dayus D red - October 27, 2013 Reply

@kentusoga, pls watch the replay of that first goal again. It was Evans job to take care of Peter Crough. He was actually infornt of him but misjudged the ball. It was also Evans hasty clearance that deflected off Peter Crough’s leg. Smaliing did not have the best of games but was not poor than Jones, Nani or Cleverly who should have prevented the cross.

Hyder - October 27, 2013 Reply

Well i think football is a mental game. Jones and Evans weren’t mentaly strong enough 2 play Crouch as Vidic and Ferdinand wud. Peter was very much comfortable playin dem little boys. I think our coach needs 2 think how mentaly each of our players think d opposition players. Evans and Jones did a pretty good job in keepin Suarez than Ferdinand and vidic wud. I’m tellin u guys it’s all mental.

Sketch - October 27, 2013 Reply

The main issue of the lack of goals and chances created by united is down to Moyes’ tactics of playing Rooney alongside RVP. This is helping Rooney but not the team, that need him to drop off and help out our useless midfield pair. Now Shinji is a play maker, he is a number 10, simple as. He should be played behind the front man, and is better than Rooney in that position because of his better ball control and vision. Many make a big deal out of Rooney’s long range passing, but for me one of the main reasons we haven’t played fluid attacking play is because of how long he takes to turn and hit the ball out wide. This makes us ridiculously predictable, especially with a two deep laying midfielders that are reluctant to come forward and take shots. United should learn to play through the MIDDLE, and with Shinji that’s the way forward!
Against Norwich i’d like to see.
Hernandez in front of Januzaj- Kagawa – Zaha. With Fellaini and Carrick in midfield. But that won’t happen because of Moyes’ reluctance to put Wazza on the bench. -_-

Denton Davey - October 27, 2013 Reply

Mongoletsi @ 2:55: “partnering Phil Jones with Rooney? Wtf?”

It’s often said, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” but from what I’ve seen so far this season the midfield is broken. That means one of two things – one, MC16 is playing without a proper partner (i.e., a partner who can help him to express all parts of his game) or, two, that maybe last year was Carrick’s absolute peak and the team needs to move on.

MrJones/TheWayneBoy offer a completely different midfield combo – the next three matches are against Norwich, Sociedad, and Fulham so it seems to me that this is a good time to try something different. Something really, really different.

Mongoletsi - October 28, 2013 Reply

Sorry but this is lunacy.

Why would you drop Carrick, and play Rooney (who clearly doesn’t want to play there) in the middle? Why would you play Jones (who clearly doesn’t want to play there) instead of Fellaini?

This is idiocy.

Like your pathetic nicknames!

Denton Davey - October 27, 2013 Reply

DayusRed @ 1:43: “Evans hasty clearance that deflected off Peter Crough’s leg. Smaliing did not have the best of games but was not poor than Jones, Nani or Cleverly who should have prevented the cross.”

Watch it again – after DaveySavey parries the shot from Crouchi-gol, the ball inadvertently hits DDG’s left foot and rebounds back to him and then pin-balls into the net.

Saying that does nothing to mitigate the atrocious defending from ALL of Jones and Nani and Cleverley AND Evans.

Mongoletsi - October 28, 2013 Reply



Vivek - October 27, 2013 Reply

De Gea
Raf/Valencia Jones/Vidic Evans Evra
Carrick & Clev
Januzaj Rooney Kagawa

Can you imagine the creativity having Kagawa Janu Clev all playing behind Rooney and RVP?!

It’s just mind-boggling!
In time we can unleash Zaha who can tear defence apart and guess, we can go to a 4-5-1 formation if Wazza and RVP either gets injured.

Vivek - October 27, 2013 Reply


This is what I want to see in January!

Mongoletsi - October 28, 2013 Reply

Rooney would not want to see that. And neither would anybody who actually has a clue about football.

Rooney is a forward. He is not an attacking midfielder, and he’s certainly not a defensive midfielder.

alex - October 27, 2013 Reply

Hold it there, like you said if it ain’t broken don’t fix it, why spoil the rhythm we are getting into. Lets stick with this formation and make a few changes

Chinedu godson - October 27, 2013 Reply

Kagawa is a good midfild nd central mid , attack mid, i wnt kagawa to play evry game 90min. He is best midfilder nt winger

Denton Davey - October 27, 2013 Reply

Alex @ 6:03: “Lets stick with this formation and make a few changes”

Why stick with a “formation” that has yielded so little positive results from so much talent ? I don’t see that TheLads are getting into any kind of rhythm –

one goal against West Brom?

two goals against a reeling Sunderland ?

one goal against Southampton ?

one goal against Real Sociedad ?

three goals against an awful Stoke-team that parked the bus ?

I don’t see much “rhythm” in those results.

donkarnash - October 27, 2013 Reply

Fellaini was bought to help carrick in that DM position. Moyes should give him time to prove. why did u pay 27.5m if he was not good enough.
Secondly rafael rb smalling cb and jones cdm will always work better temporarily. smalling at rb is the worst choice.

Main reason of bad form has been defence, attackers are left to do too much.Sort out defence and will give confidence to attackers as well.

My best formation:

de gea
rafael vidic evans evra
jones carrick
valencia rooney januzaj

Mongoletsi - October 28, 2013 Reply

de gea
rafael vidic evans evra
felliani carrick
januzaj rooney kagawa


alex - October 27, 2013 Reply

At least we got the three points. I have seen SAF in his time, go through a similar period the only difference is he always got the three points, at least we got the key and moved the bus in the stoke game that we couldn’t move in previous games. All am saying is we have to start from somewhere lets give these lads a chance

Andrew - October 27, 2013 Reply

Great read. Thanks. Would love to see Kagawa become a key player.

Hassan - October 27, 2013 Reply

kagawa n d best

toBe - October 28, 2013 Reply

Rooney is better in d midfield; & mr moyes shuld spend more time learning frm SAF & infact, mr moyes shuld bring bak SAF’s backroom staff, give evans, jones & smalling more time 2 develope in d crnter bak position, nani shuld join anderson in d reserve & den go get a strong attack-minded midfieler so mr rooney can enjoy his prefered position. Kagawa shuld b played behind d center forward meanwhile. Central midfield has always bin our problem. Period. Smalling shuld never be used as a right full bak….rafael or valencia plss. Clerverly shuld b given more game time likewise hernandez

simba - October 28, 2013 Reply

kagawa is a winner

Yousif Nur - October 29, 2013 Reply

If used correctly and has a good run of games, he could be our most important player this season. COULD.

Manish Acharya - October 29, 2013 Reply

@R_o_M play kagawa in middle and ask the two wingers to track back. Nani and Valencia fits.

Zé Lofty - October 29, 2013 Reply

havent actually watched United play but Moyes should b able to fit him in even as a sub

ronald welime - October 31, 2013 Reply

play kagawa in the middle valencia and adnah both on wings nani is not delivering please

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