Shinji freed, but Moyes’ mindset remains shackled
It was a fleeting moment, but for many inside Old Trafford, one of real beauty: Shinji Kagawa freed from the left and deployed, at long last, in his favoured position at number 10. Legion Manchester United supporters have waited months to see it, and while there were no angels weeping, nor doves soaring high over Manchester, an inner child of joy was unleashed in thousands of grown men who should know better.
Kagawa’s move inside lasted little more than a dozen minutes against Real Sociedad on Wednesday night, but it was a liberation of sorts that brings both catharsis for the player and poses a key question: will the United now manager trust to the creative potential in his midst, or retreat once again into his own limitations?
True, there is little evidence that Kagawa is the solution to United’s problems, save for a feeling that his is a talent too good to waste on the bench or shunt out wide. Then there are those two excellent seasons in the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund, although the Japanese has done little at United to justify significant lionisation. But, then, he has been afforded little opportunity to do so either.
Indeed, such has been the paucity of creative spark from United this season, driven in part by available personnel, but predominantly by David Moyes’ mindset, that Kagawa’s potential impact is exaggerated in absentia.
Yet, for those few minutes against the Basque side Kagawa glided inside, with Wayne Rooney moving forward and the ever-hapless Ashley Young taking a position on the left-wing. Free at last, the playmaker was at liberty to dictate the tempo and direction of United’s play.
For the best part of 80 minutes Kagawa was typically energetic on the left, although it is pointed to note that the most frequent passing combination was with Patrice Evra, his supporting full-back. The role inherently limits the scope to which Kagawa is involved and the areas of the pitch he can probe.
Nor did Kagawa shirk his defensive responsibilities, frequently dropping back into his own half to cover Evra. It is an ethic Moyes predictably likes, but a requirement that also limits Kagawa’s offensive impact.
“I thought it was Shinji’s best game in my time here,” Moyes said in the aftermath of United’s 1-0 victory over Sociedad.
“He hadn’t really found his feet yet but I saw something from Shinji tonight which I hadn’t seen in other games, so I was really pleased. His effort when we didn’t have the ball was fantastic. With Shinji, everybody tells me about his ability and what he has got, but tonight is the first time I’ve really seen Shinji.
“I thought when we put him into the number 10 role, and even after it, he was good with Wayne. His attitude and energy were excellent and I was pleased for him.”
Yet, more than Kagawa’s impact on United’s performances the former Borussia player has become an icon for the style of play many Reds long for. Educated in a long-standing tradition of attacking football, however rosy the nostalgia, the notion of Moyes’ functional defensive-minded football is anathema to many match-going supporters.
It was with horror that many witnessed Moyes haul Rooney off for Chris Smalling against Southampton last weekend, however poor the striker’s performance. Moyes rationalised: protection at set pieces in the final moments of the game was more important than securing a second goal, but it was a move that said so much more about the Scot’s approach.
Despite the bright performance against La Real there are still significant barriers to Kagawa claiming a permanent place in Moyes’ side, not least the Scot’s apparent reluctance to part with a mindset honed over more than a decade fighting the good fight with Everton.
Then there is the question of how to fit Kagawa, Rooney and Robin van Persie into the side without compromising the role of one or more player in what has become a fairly static 4-4-2 formation under the new manager. Given van Persie’s status, and the extraordinarily sycophantic lengths to which Moyes has courted Rooney, it is safe to assume that it is the Japanese that will continue to miss out. He has most weeks since August 2012.
Throw Adnan Januzaj into the mix and United has a creative, flexible and inventive quartet that Moyes has not yet unleashed in tandem. It is doubtful that he ever will.
In fact Kagawa’s deployment in his natural position at ‘10’ has been so rare during nearly 18 months at the club that the playmaker’s departure this January had begun to feel inevitable. It may still be should the 24-year-old once again find himself consigned to the wing, or more likely, to the bench over the coming weeks.
And despite this there is the nagging sense that not only could the Japanese spark life into a run-of-the-mill United side, but help shape Moyes’ thinking away from the defense-first approach required at Everton, to something fundamentally more adventurous at Old Trafford.
After all, Moyes’ opening dozen games are disturbing, not only for the abject manner in which his team has too often performed, and the frustrating manner in which the new man has cast aside those players he does not know or trust, but for the fundamentally cautious approach. It is an instinct that will shape, for better or worse, Moyes’ legacy at Old Trafford.
In that Kagawa has become symbolic of the regime change. The man once described by former coach Jurgen Klopp as “one of the best players in the world” now a square peg in Moyes’ round hole. One bright performance against Sociedad won’t change that, but it could be the beginning of Kagawa’s revival.
If Moyes is open to it.