There is a curious aspect to Sir Alex Ferguson’s time at Old Trafford – more than 25 years of evolution and sustained glory – that the great Scot has probably never signed a free-spirited ‘number 10’. The player, in the parlance of modern tactics-speak, who ghosts between the lines; neither midfielder, nor attacker in any distinct sense.
Yet, Manchester United’s much talked about interest in Belgian youngster Eden Hazard, and the more likely acquisition of Shinji Kagawa, appears to mark a distinct break in this tradition.
And Ferguson’s moves this summer, at least if Kagawa’s acquisition is completed, could have widespread ramifications for both United’s tactical shape, style of play and personnel. Indeed, word is that Ferguson wants to return his side to a more expansive, one-touch, fast-paced style that was last seen late summer, 2011, but disappeared post that thrashing by Manchester City at Old Trafford.
While it is unlikely United ever had a genuine shot at securing Hazard’s transfer – money and success talk like little else in football – the Belgian will showcase his wares in England after agreeing a £32 million move to Chelsea. The west Londoners will confirm the deal when the transfer window opens on 1 July, and are set to build a new team around the 21-year-old whomever is manager next season.
So often deployed from the left by Lille Métropole over the past four years, Hazard has flourished this season in a more central role, scoring 20 league goals and providing a further 15 assists. The campaign has catapulted 21-year-old Hazard into the limelight, together with a huge bump in salary and potential super-stardom in England.
Certainly, the fleet-footed forward is one many of the world’s leading players, and Joe Cole, believe is in the next generation of elite performers.
Kagawa, meanwhile, has progressed at Borussia Dortmund since a €350,000 move from Cerezo Osaka in the J-League two summers ago. The Japanese player has become a central part of Dortmund’s tactical make-up during the last two title-winning campaigns – representing remarkable progress from the years spent in J-League division two, where the player spent much of his early career.
Indeed, Kagawa made over 100 appearances in the lower reaches of Japanese football before being transplanted to Europe, and into Dortmund’s first team. Next step Old Trafford, it seems, with Dortmund announcing that a fee of around €22 million, including bonuses, has been agreed between the clubs.
If, and presumably when, Kagawa joins he will surely be deployed in the shadow of a lone-striker, having rarely played in a midfield two during a fledgling European career. Most comfortable deployed between-the-lines of midfield and attack, Kagawa could help rid United of predictability – especially against sides tending to park the bus at Old Trafford.
And while others have played off the front man in Ferguson’s time, few is any have been a specialist in that position. True, Wayne Rooney has been widely deployed deep in the campaign just ended, linking midfield and Danny Welbeck together. Yet, over the last eight years Ferguson has more often deployed the former Evertonian in a straightforward attacking role.
Then, of course, there was Eric Cantona, who was so comfortable playing off Mark Hughes, and then Andy Cole, but was always a striker who loved to roam rather than the trequarista in the grand tradition of Gianni Rivera, Roberto Baggio, and latterly Alessandro Del Piero.
Similarly, Teddy Sherringham, who joined the club after Cantona’s departure, was a forward comfortable dropping deep into midfield.
Then there are those Ferguson has missed out on, including Ronaldinho in 2003, although United’s manager had earmarked the Brazilian for David Beckham’s wide role. Or Mesut Özil – the “ghost” as Ferguson once dubbed the German playmaker – who has excelled in his second season with Real Madrid this year.
Into the present and Ferguson seems likely to use Kagawa is the Japanese player’s favoured role between midfield and attack in a 4-2-3-1 system that is a gradual evolution of the formation most regularly used in coming second to City.
With the Japanese in the team, Rooney is more likely to be deployed further forward, with two from Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Tom Cleverley playing through central midfield.
Yet, unless Ferguson brings in another, more traditional, midfielder this summer United is still likely to face searching questions through the centre of the park. After all, while Carrick performed admirably in recent months, Scholes turns 38 in November. Meanwhile, Anderson and Cleverley have rarely spent time away from the physio suite in recent years, while Fletcher’s long-term future in the game remains in doubt due to illness.
Kagwa’s arrival also asks questions of United’s forwards, with Rooney seemingly likely to play at ‘9’ next season; presumably as the lone front-runner in a flexible four-man attack. That’s bad news for Welbeck, who performed so well last season when fit, and Javier Hernández, the Mexican whose stop-start campaign proved so disappointing.
Indeed, in this sense Kagawa’s likely purchase is as much a replacement for the departing Dimitar Berbatov, as it is for the ageing Scholes.
Interesting, then, that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is determined to replicate the system at Stamford Bridge, with Hazard central in a three-man supporting line to Fernando Torres. Presumably Juan Mata and Marko Marin, or an as-yet -to-be-determined right-sided player, will be deployed off the Spanish forward. Torres may even flourish in Didier Drogba’s absence.
Time will tell whether Ferguson’s first foray into the market for a genuine ‘number 10’ is an experiment worth making. Or, indeed, whether the outlay on the Japanese player turns out to be half the return of Hazard’s huge fee, or double the value – to coin a Fergusonian phrase.
There are fewer questions about the Belgian’s quality though, with Kagawa having spent just two seasons at the highest level of European football. Hazard, by contrast, is now two-times French Player of the Year.
Moreover, Kagawa, while scoring 13 in 31 Bundesliga appearances last season, can also be wasteful in possession, and comes off worst in more than two-thirds of tackles and 50-50s entered into. Worryingly, the 23-year-old also gets substituted more often than he actually remains on the pitch, strongly suggesting a problem with stamina.
The stats only paint one part of the story, of course, but do give an indication of a player who will surely take some time to bed down in English football, with all the physicality that it brings. And if Kagawa takes time to star at United, then Ferguson’s players may also need games to unlock both the new man’s undoubted potential, and a new approach to the game.