There was something especially beautiful about Manchester United’s performance in Germany this week. True, the Reds have struck five before and there have undoubtedly been better performances, even on the road. And there will certainly be bigger games and finer opponents this season. Yet, there is a sense that United’s thrashing of Bayer Leverkusen is a seminal juncture in David Moyes’ tenure at Old Trafford. The lightbulb moment; an apple falling dead straight from the tree.
It has nothing to do with old cliches either. United will find confidence from the result, of course, although Premier League champions should not normally lack for it. No, the moment that made United’s victory in Germany’s industrial heartland was Moyes’ decision, finally, to trust Shinji Kagawa as the team’s principle playmaker. Boy did it work.
Kagawa didn’t make the Reds’ victory alone of course. Wayne Rooney excelled in having a hand in four of the visitors’ goals. Ryan Giggs was outstanding two days short of his 40th birthday. And Nani was his brilliant mercurial best in whatever position he chose fit to take up on the night.
Yet, only Kagawa was truly transformative; the Japanese player’s presence seemingly fundamentally altering United’s style. Gone was the staid, predictable movement of the Reds’ depressing performance at Cardiff City on Sunday. In its wake came Kagawa’s drive in the transition from defence to attack and a freedom to make those incisive thrusts from almost anywhere on the pitch.
United’s opening goal is the Kagawa effect in microcosm – the burst of pace to beat Stefan Reinartz, a reverse pass snapped to Ryan Giggs, with Rooney and Antonio Valencia completing an incisive move. In that moment the Japanese offered not only pace to the attack, but an unpredictable variety rarely seen in any other member of Moyes’ squad. How can the Scot even contemplate leaving the former Borussia Dortmund player out now?
It this observation there is no attempt to belittle Rooney’s contribution on the night, which was excellent, nor that of Robin van Persie, who has underpinned the team’s success over the past 18 months. But there was certainly a feeling in the BayArena late on Wednesday night that if Kagawa cannot command a more regular spot at the heart of United’s attack now, then he surely never will.
Each of United’s front four was outstanding, but the Japanese turned out to be the catalyst for change.
“It was a pleasure to play behind that front four,” said Giggs in the aftermath.
“It really clicked and we could have scored more goals, but we mustn’t be too greedy. To score five goals anywhere in Europe has got to be be classed as a good result. Our speed was key, we really killed Leverkusen on the counter attack. The first goal was a prime example of that – really quick play. It was a real pleasure to play the game.”
In that there is also a sadness. Melancholy that stems from a realisation that Kagawa’s lot is surely confined to United’s left, injuries notwithstanding. Indeed, it would take a tactical transformation of a nature anathema to Moyes to bring Kagawa, Rooney and van Persie into the team in positions familiar to each of the trio.
Kagawa is likely to return to United’s left at Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday with van Persie returning. At the crux of the matter a simple fact: in most formations three of Rooney, van Persie and Kagawa into two slots simply won’t go. After all, Sir Alex Ferguson’s wasn’t prepared to make that compromise either in his final season with the club.
Indeed, fans must cast the mind back to the Reds’ formation in 2008 for the last time any United side lined up with the kind of formation that might suit Kagawa. The Reds’ front trio of Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez offer a pointer to perhaps the only way that Moyes could cram his most potent attacking options into one team – a flexible front three comprising a Scouser, a Japanese and a Dutchman.
Still, it was a Scot who gave little away post-match, with a nagging sense remaining that Moyes’ philosophy is predominantly pragmatic, rather than erring on the side of creativity. Kagawa played in the hole in Germany, it seems, not because of the metamorphic effect on United’s tactics, but that it was Moyes’ best option with an injury effected squad.
“It is a long season and we are going to have to make sure we have different combinations for different games and tonight Shinji and Wayne played well,” said Moyes late on Wednesday.
“Sometimes Wayne might need to play up front and Shinji will play behind. We have to make sure we have alternatives. Shinji was excellent tonight but he’s also good on the left.”
In that Moyes will make a fascinating choice in north London on Sunday, with Giggs earning a rest and Marouanne Fellaini set to rejoin the team for the Reds’ visit to White Hart Lane.
The Belgian is far less dynamic than the Welshman even with 15 less years on the clock. Should van Persie return, and Kagawa once again find himself constrained on the left, there is surely ample risk that United’s approach will also reek of inhibition as it did in Wales last weekend.
It is a tactical and philosophical conundrum Moyes is yet to fully solve. Least of all, it seems, in his own mind. The former Everton manager is slowly finding his sea legs at Old Trafford, but there are key decisions to come. History says the 50-year-old always ers on the side of caution.
Yet, as former Red Gary Neville once said, United is a club that can transform a manager, as much as the man the institution. Moyes’ heart is conservative, but Kagawa’s performance on Wednesday night will surely chip away just a little more of the granite façade.
“It was one of my best days as Manchester United manager,” admitted Moyes. “We won well, we played well, with some outstanding performances. There will be better days to come.”
In that there is a feeling Moyes controls much of his own destiny: a lesson learned in the BayArea, or a joyous, if ephemeral, performance.