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.