Tag Shinji Kagawa

Tag Shinji Kagawa

Attacking trio lights way to a more dynamic approach

Ed April 6, 2014 Tags: , , Opinion 29 comments
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Imagine for a moment a Manchester United side without Robin van Persie or Wayne Rooney. In the kind of thought experiment common in pubs throughout the land consider, if you will, whether United could actually be better off without two of the finest strikers in Europe? Odd as the premise may seem, there is growing evidence that some of United’s more exciting performances in recent times have come when David Moyes’ hand has been forced into change by injuries.

None more so than at St. James’ Park on Saturday where the Reds hammered Newcastle United with a brand of dynamic, flexible, attacking football rarely seen under the new management. Neither Rooney, nor van Persie were available and, perhaps more pertinent still, United spent much of game without a traditional winger in sight.

This was a performance far flung indeed from the risible avalanche of crosses delivered against Fulham at Old Trafford in January, where United lobbed in more than 80 to such little effect that Cottagers defender Dan Burn compared it to Conference level football. Such has been the pattern for most of the campaign.

Indeed, at the heart of United’s performance at St. James’ was £37 million January acquisition Juan Mata, the rejuvenated Shinji Kagawa and teenage sensation Adnan Januzaj. Each man has a legitimate claim, and talent, to be United’s ‘number 10’; each seemingly lies behind Rooney in the pecking order for the role. Yet, in the north east the trio worked in tandem from the 18th minute on to devastating effect as United ran out comfortable winners.

Juan Mata heatmap vs Newcastle United

Juan Mata heatmap vs Newcastle United

While Januzaj’s form has waned a touch in the new year, Kagawa and Mata are growing as a pair with each passing game. The Spaniard was deployed through the centre against Newcastle, and Japanese nominally off the left, although in reality the formation for the final two thirds defied any real systemic label. Januzaj’s introduction created a flexible triumvirate that has little obvious resemblance to Moyes’ typical formation – one that history suggests the Scot is loathe to deploy.

Mata has become the perfect complement to Kagawa in the past month rather than, as popular perception might have it, the former Borussia Dortmund player’s replacement. “Its a pleasure to play with Shinji Kagawa, we connect very well,” said Mata of the growing partnership. In Januzaj the pair has a teammate very much cut from the same cloth.

And the Spaniard has certainly benefitted from the more central role proffered after van Persie’s latest injury. “I don’t see myself as a proper winger,” Mata told ESPN last month. “I love to play between the lines as a number 10, come inside, that is where I feel comfortable. I love to play in possession.”

He certainly did that at Newcastle, contributing 62 passes to United’s total of 531. Kagawa touched the ball 72 times, while the vital Darren Fletcher contributed 76 passes in the holding role. And while United remained direct – launching more than 15 per cent of balls long – the team played more passes in the attacking third than is often the case. In other words Mata, Kagawa and Januzaj are prepared to be more intricate in the build up than is typical when Ashley Young, Antonio Valenica or Nani are involved.

Kagawa, meanwhile, is still operating from the left, but as in the match at West Ham United last month, the Japanese is more likely to drift inside in Mata’s presence, seemingly stripped of – or simply ignoring – Moyes’ instructions to cover his full-back. It certainly aids the playmaker’s efficacy when United deploys two holding midfielders, with Fletcher and Marouane Fellaini starting against Alan Pardew’s side and covering as the visitors’ attack broke down.

Shinji Kagawa heatmap vs Newcastle United

Shinji Kagawa heatmap vs Newcastle United

“I played behind the main striker at Dortmund,” Kagawa told United Review last December. “I should be flexible enough to play in a number of roles, so I am a more attractive player to the team .” More pertinent still, Kagawa declared his desire to “play in the hole,” on signing in June 2012. “I feel like that’s where I play my best football.” Few will disagree.

But key also to United’s more dynamic approach at St. James’ was Javier Hernández’ presence. The Mexican is always on the move, whereas van Persie has become increasingly static this season as injuries and frustration bite. Rooney, meanwhile, has a tendency to slow United’s play down with long-range right-to-left passes into the space that Moyes venerates.

Hernández has been more frequently out of United’s first team than in it this season, but his ability to stretch the opposition and run in behind the back four proffered Mata, Kagawa and then Januzaj options for the final pass  – and, with some irony, far greater space in which to run. A similar observation could be made of Danny Welbeck, who is less explosive than Chicharito, but offers defenders a moving target. Life without Rooney or van Persie might strip United of goals, but a more flexible attacking approach is certainly the upside.

Yet, there is also a school of thought that says Moyes is unlikely to start any of United’s more creative players against Bayern Munich next Wednesday. Mata will be ineligible, Januzaj will surely drop to the bench, while Kagawa’s presence is far from guaranteed. After all in the home leg Moyes preferred the physical defensive presence of Fellaini together with Ryan Giggs’ experience in midfield.

Moreover, while the best offensive approach against Bayern is often to squeeze play, winning the ball back in higher areas of the pitch and then breaking quickly, Moyes tends to take a more traditional view of the defensive art. United dropped so deep against the Germans last week that Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić simply defended their own 18-yard-line. ‘Parking the bus’ may be an effective defensive tactic, but United needs to win or score at least twice in Munich.

Still, it would be strange indeed for the Scot to deviate from his typical pattern, and Moyes’ analysis of United’s away form this season hints at the Reds’ likely approach in the coming Champions League fixture. United will not be taking the game to Bayern in the Allianz Arena.

“Maybe there’s a big expectation at Old Trafford to go and be a bit gung-ho and play in a real attacking style,” suggested the Scot on Saturday. “We’ve lost a few games by narrow margins – 1-0 (to) Newcastle United, Everton. We’ve lost a few games like that, whereas maybe away from home there’s not as much expectancy to go and be like that.”

Yet, the Reds’ victory at Newcastle was the first time this season that Moyes’ side had actually beaten an opponent in the Premier League’s top nine away from home. Defeat at the Etihad and Stamford Bridge, came alongside draws with Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur in north London. Fixtures with Everton at Goodison Park and Southampton at St. Mary’s will test United in the weeks to come.

In contradiction to the Scot’s analysis, Moyes’ tendency to approach difficult away fixtures with a defensive mindset may well contribute to United conceding impetus and possession to the opposition. In similar fashion the injured Rooney is likely to return in Germany, where Welbeck will be asked to  reprise his role on the left, and Valencia is favourite to offer defensive cover from the right.

As such, while it was a pleasure witnessing Mata, Kagawa and Januzaj in tandem on Saturday, it is an approach unlikely to be repeated next week.

Data attribution: Opta/ESPN

Moyes finds feet in United’s flexibility

Ed November 29, 2013 Tags: , , Opinion 20 comments
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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.

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

Jay Shon 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.

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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.

Shinji freed, but Moyes’ mindset remains shackled

Ed October 24, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 14 comments
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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.

Shinji could become Moyes’ liberator

Ed October 9, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 31 comments
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In 10 years under David Moyes Everton relied heavily on width. With Sir Alex Ferguson also a believer, Moyes has persisted with the philosophy in his new role at Manchester United, although the result has been mixed at best.

Sides facing the Reds tend to focus on retaining a defensive shape, and an attacking philosophy that becomes predictable makes it easier for opposition to anticipate and react to United’s attacks. Relying heavily on the flanks, for example, falls into that category. This is one reason why Ferguson tried to include as many avenues of attack as possible to break down stubborn opposition.

After a run of poor results early in the season Moyes might have learned this lesson too, although he has problems with implementation. The line-up against Sunderland last weekend was versatile, with a variety of formations such as 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 all possible without substitution. Adnan Januzaj and Nani added flexibility – United could use the flanks traditionally or otherwise. Even deployed on the natural flank, each is comfortable using their weaker foot and Sunderland was forced to risk allowing the United duo to cut inside.

Meanwhile, with Wayne Rooney deployed as more of a forward than a genuine number 10 the Englishman came deep only occasionally, leaving room for Januzaj to play between the lines. The plan was scuppered only by Sunderland’s use of a 4-3-3 formation with Lee Cattermole holding. In the end United struggled to channel balls through the middle.

One consequence was that United attacked almost exclusively down the flanks, delivering 30 crosses, and made it easy for Sunderland to defend. In fact so easy was it for Sunderland in the first half that the Reds might have lost if it wasn’t for David de Gea’s heroics and, eventually, Januzaj’s brilliance.

It has been a pattern this season, with United’s opponents defending deep and shepherding Red wingers out wide into predictable situations. It is a tactic that doesn’t even play into the Reds’ hands, with Marouanne Fellaini the only aerial presence in the squad.

Meanwhile, Robin Van Persie’s isolation up front has been an issue throughout the campaign. One good game against Swansea City lies in contrast to his fine record last season. Even so the Dutch striker’s form this season is puzzling given that United hasn’t lost any key personnel nor has the side changed tactics significantly.

Perhaps the answer lies in the lack of a player deployed behind the Dutchman. Rooney was deployed at number 10 last season, while Danny Welbeck played a similar role against Swansea on the opening day of the campaign. With a player in the hole the opposition is forced to commit an extra man between the lines.

Meanwhile United’s wingers are more potent too. After all, crosses are more dangerous with a forward arriving late into the box having escaped his marker. Yet, for the most part Rooney has been deployed as a partner of, rather than a supporting man to, van Persie this year.

Over the past two seasons Rooney has played successfully at 10 – at least in terms of his output, albeit with differing instructions each campaign. Yet, United’s performances have dropped since Cristiano Ronaldo left for Madrid, with a group of wide players taking poor form into the current season from the last.

Aside from Ronaldo’s loss, much of the problem lies with in Rooney’s footballing style. The former Evertonian has never been particularly comfortable playing in tight quarters, leading the 27-year-old, whether by instinct or instruction, to release the ball to the flanks. It is always an easier out ball since wide men tend to have more space than the central forward.

To his credit ‘White Pele’ is a player who looks for the ball, but his influence directly affects the type and quality of football United plays, and his tendency to shift the focus to the flank has prompted some of club’s lower quality displays in recent years. Not least because United can boast so few wide players in form.

Width is, of course, central not just to Moyes, but to many managers in world football. Wingers tend to suffer the least opposition pressure and present an easy passing option. Speedy wide men also stretch the field of play and make it easier for those through the middle to find space.

Yet, Rooney’s style tends to offer a map to the Reds’ approach – one that’s not particularly useful in any case, with so little aerial prowess in the squad.

In order to break out of this cycle Moyes could refocus United’s threat through the middle. Welbeck has often played at 10, and presents a safe option given his work rate and tactical intelligence. But the academy graduate lacks real incision leaving Shinji Kagawa a far more adventurous choice in the hole.

Despite not playing regularly the former Dortmund player boasted the highest passing completion rate in the final third in England last season. Notwithstanding his excellent form in the Bundesliga from 2010-12, Kagawa affords United a passing option near the opposition box that no other player offers.

There are risks: it is often said Kagawa’s lack of physicality causes United problems through the middle. However, recent changes in the squad may offer an answer to this problem.

Fellaini has long held that his natural role is that of a defensive midfielder, although the Belgian has added little steel in the engine room to date. Indeed, the Champions League game against Shaktar brutally exposed a serious flaw in the former Everton player. The Belgian gave away a series of fouls, which was understandable because of his limited European experience, but the tendency to give away possession, was even more worrying.

Closer to home, Cleverley has become a defensive midfielder of note under Moyes. The England international is making more interceptions and tackles this season than ever before. On average he has made three tackles per game this season against 1.68 tackles per game last season, while the midfielder’s tackling success rate has increased from 78 per cent to 93 per cent.

At the Stadium of Light, for example, Cleverley successfully completed eight tackles from nine attempts. The midfielder was deployed in a central two against Sunderland’s three man midfield and his tackle success rate, number of tackles and courage, knowing that a missed tackle would put his defence under pressure, was highly impressive.

Moreover, Cleverley has maintained the 90 per cent pass completion rate of last season. Incredibly, 63.6 per cent of his passes are forwards – against 56.5 per cent last season. The former Wigan Athletic player does not offer the sheer brawn of Fellaini, but the statistics suggest that Cleverley is now an accomplished tackler who also keeps possession.

Meanwhile, Kagawa is the one United player who can go laterally and offer United more attacking options. Rooney is a better crosser, and perhaps more threatening than the Japanese out wide, but Kagawa is unquestionably superior floating behind a striker.

The former Dortmund player covered more ground than any other player in his last Bundesliga season, roaming in search of space and allowing midfielders to move the ball up field safely. The Japanese could do the same for United, helping the Reds to keep possession in the middle and freeing Michael Carrick at the same time. In fact, Kagawa’s ability to navigate the game in tight quarters means that Moyes could even consider a Carrick-free midfield.

Ferguson’s purchase of Kagawa, and the Scot’s initial deployment of the Japan international at 10, indicates that the transfer had a rationale behind it. Cleverley’s development might allow Moyes to deploy a traditional number 10 whose primary role is to provide creativity.

Although this switch might place too much emphasis on Kagawa the creator, Januzaj’s rapid growth could divert attention from the Japanese, if Moyes dares to deploy both.

And while is Rooney still is a better all-round footballer than Kagawa the Scouser severely limits United’s attacking variety. Sir Alex benched expensive and seemingly important players, such as Dimitar Berbatov and Ruud Nisterlooy, when needed. Does Moyes have the bottle to do the same with Rooney? He might just benefit from it.

Kagawa joins magical marketing tour with much to gain

Ed July 22, 2013 Tags: Opinion 1 comment
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Funny thing, Shinji Kagawa’s return from an extended summer break; one that just happens to coincide with the third leg of Manchester United’s extensive summer tour. As David Moyes’ players touched down at Tokyo’s Narita airport on Sunday night so United’s Japanese international joined the squad having sat out matches in Thailand and Australia. Cynics might point to a marketing opportunity captured. Rant couldn’t possibly comment.

Those of a more skeptical bent might also note Kagawa’s extended press conference in the Japanese capital on Monday, with Moyes leaving to take training while the player answered questions. Of all the priorities on tour Rant had presumed training was the last of them.

Nor, it has to be said, was the club’s other Confederations Cup participant – Javier Hernández – anywhere to be seen. Time off, it seems, is a selective necessity.

This is c’est la vie on tour of course, with preparations for the season ahead now firmly a second class citizen to commercial realities. After all, with United’s New York shareholders the club’s primary financial stakeholders, the eight figures this tour will add to the club’s bottom line are of interest.

But for Kagawa any pride he feels about United’s fixture against his old club must come secondary to physical preparation for the campaign to come. This pre-season is particularly important for the 24-year-old Japanese playmaker, who is both on the cusp of a huge personal opportunity, and the precipice of failure at Old Trafford.

After all Kagawa’s performances in his first United season were exceptional only in glimpses, with the former Borussia Dortmund star spending large spells on the sidelines injured or out-of-position.

It is a history of injury that presents a genuine concern, with the player appearing in just 26 matches in all competitions for United last season. During three campaigns in Europe Kagawa has suffered a serious knee injury, a ruptured ankle ligament, and a metatarsal fracture that kept the midfielder in treatment for five months. He has never completed more than 45 games in a season during seven years as a professional.

Those who know the player well are sure there is far more to come though. In this there is an opportunity, of course, especially with with Wayne Rooney seemingly on his way out of the club before the window closes at the end of August. Indeed, Kagawa could use the remaining fixtures this summer to force his way into Moyes’ thinking as Robin van Persie’s natural foil in a new look United attack.

No better time to forge a close personal relationship, then. That first encounter between player and manager came on Monday, with the pair catching a moment in the car ahead of a joint media conference publicising United’s fixtures with Yokohama F. Marinos on Tuesday, and Kagawa’s old club Cerezo Osaka on Friday.

“Today I met David Moyes for the first time. We had a good talk in the car. We still need to spend more time to get to know each other but I’m looking forward to building our relationship,” the player told international and local media.

“As a player, I want to give my best in each game and give a good impression to the manager. It’s true I had some difficult moments last year but gradually through the year I could participate for longer periods. It doesn’t matter if I play as a ‘number 10′ or not. I’m very confident I can play in any position for the team.”

In that Kagawa is only a little disingenuous. Tactics do, of course, matter, with the player far more naturally suited to performing as the team’s fulcrum at ’10’ and not marginalised on the wings. Although Kagawa’s pitch-time increased in the spring it did so usually from the left, although the player is never one to find chalk on his boots.

Deployed freely in the centre – and with Rooney surely off to pastures greener in west London – Kagawa may even help the new manager evolve United’s style of play. After all, with United only marginally deviating from a 4-4-2 last season, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team was at times a little predictable.

But if Sir Alex didn’t fully understand the player, whom United acquired last summer for around £14 million, then his former manager Jurgen Klopp surely does. The Champions League finalist is in little doubt how United will gain most from Kagawa’s time at the club.

“Shinji Kagawa is one of the best players in the world, and he now plays 20 minutes at Manchester United – on the left wing! My heart breaks. Really, I have tears in my eyes, ” Klopp told The Guardian in May.

“Central midfield is Shinji’s best role. He’s an offensive midfielder with one of the best noses for goal I ever saw. But for most Japanese people it means more to play for Man United than Dortmund. We cried for 20 minutes, in each other’s arms, when he left.”

In that there is a salutatory lesson for Moyes, although it comes with no guarantee that it will be heard. Not that the Glaswegian is likely to break down in tears, but there is a question whether the 50-year-old will be bold enough to deploy Kagawa between the lines of midfield and attack.

After all, Mikel Arteta and Steven Pienaar, playmakers both, were frequently deployed on the wing under Moyes’ stewardship, while the Scot often used Marouane Fellaini ‘in the hole’ – a tactic that normally provoked Everton’s dogs of war to launch repeated waves of direct balls at the Belgian’s substantial frame.

Moreover, with United chasing Barcelona’s Cesc Fàbregas and prepared, it is reported, to spend heavily on Gareth Bale, Kagawa’s starting berth in the centre is at risk. Both potential acquisitions played much of last season as advanced central midfielders, leaving Kagawa to benefit should the club instead pull off an audacious bid for Real Madrid’s Luka Modrić.

It is a scenario, albeit one in the spirit of fanciful speculation that is so common this time of year, that edged a step closer on Monday, with Barcelona once again rejecting United’s bid for the Spaniard.

Yet, the new United manager has revealed little of his tactical thinking in the 22 days since he was officially crowned as Ferguson’s heir; less still about what, if anything, he has planned for the club’s Japanese star.

“I know a little about him as a player,” said Moyes on Monday.

“Sir Alex spoke in glowing terms about Shinji and how good a player he is. I’ve just met him today, so we’re getting to know each other. I’m trying to learn Japanese and he’s trying to understand my Scottish.

“It was his first season in the Premier League last year. He’s a young player so we hope his development continues. I look forward to working with him and hopefully he has a really good season coming up.”

That, of course, depends on Kagawa playing more frequently for United and in a role that suits his plentiful skills. Neither is guaranteed.

But then again nor has the midfielder’s opportunity been so great – and that has little to do with those sponsor commitments that so dominated Kagawa’s return to United action on Monday.

Kagawa may be permanently consigned to the left

Jay Shon April 18, 2013 Tags: Opinion 75 comments
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There should be no doubting Shinji Kagawa’s class. During the 2011/2012 season he was a genuine contender for the best player in the Bundesliga – a title that went to Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Marco Reus, the player who would replace Kagawa at Borussia Dortmund. The campaign marked the pinnacle of the Japanese player’s career to date.

Kagawa, who started his career as a defensive midfielder in the second tier of Japanese football, was initially deployed as a goal-scoring attacking midfielder at Dortmund. That changed with the absence of Nuri Sahin and Mario Gotze in Kagawa’s second season at the German club, which forced the Japanese to share the playmaking duty as well.

​Kagawa excelled in the role.

The Japan international is quick, agile, technically sound and intelligent. Combined with his excellent work ethic, these traits made him a highly effective playmaker. In fact, towards the end of Kagawa’s two year tenure at Dortmund, BVB manager Jürgen Klopp relieved him of all defensive duties and had him just prowl the field.

The former Cerezo Osaka player took up good positions, waited for the ball to find him and launched devastating counterattacks with the sort of quick, incisive passing Manchester United fans have seen just glimpses of to date.

​Sir Alex Ferguson clearly intended to use Kagawa as a number 10. The midfielder was deployed in the position throughout United’s pre-season programme. The trend continued when the Premier League started, Kagawa impressing many in United’s defeat at Everton on the opening day.

But he was soon back on the bench even as Wayne Rooney, the incumbent number 10, struggled to regain fitness. As it turns out, the Japanese failed to make impact and ended up injured himself.

​Since returning from injury Kagawa has been primarily used on the left. The form, or rather lack of it, of United’s wide players might have prompted Ferguson’s thinking, but given the Japanese has been used in such a specific way by the United manager there might actually be a genuine, tactical aim behind the move.

​Kagawa nominally starts on the left flank, but rarely hits the byline as a traditional winger might. Nor does he attack the box as ‘inverted’ wingers are wont to do. Instead, Kagawa almost invariably quickly drifts infield, offering a passing option in the middle. In United’s recent game against Stoke City, for example, the former Dortmund player often dropped back into United’s half in search of space and the ball.

​Deploying a nominal winger to retain the ball in the middle is not new. Andreas Iniesta performs the same role for both Barcelona and Spain. David Silva and Samir Nasri play the same role at Manchester City. Sir Alex has used Ryan Giggs in the role many times in the recent era. In fact, a modern history of ‘ball retaining wingers’ at United goes all the way back to the early noughties when Paul Scholes occasionally found himself on the left flank.

​Kagawa hasn’t yet convinced the fans that he can do a good job on the left. More enlightened United supporters argue that he can’t show his true worth as a left winger, citing Kagawa’s indifferent form on the left for Japan.

The key to this argument is that playmakers do their best work when the play is directed through them – the more time on the ball, the better the playmaker’s influence on the game. In fact, it is an argument that Kagawa made himself, shortly after joining the club.

“We seem to pass the ball sideways a lot,” said the 24-year-old. “I want team-mates to start giving me the ball from all areas and angles. I need to speak to them about this, because I want them to have the trust in me to play the ball forward. ”

Adding more recently: “I have the most experience from my time at Dortmund in playing behind the striker. However, I just want to be part of the team, I will play wherever the manager wants to me to play”

​The argument is true, but United’s players are more accustomed to channeling attacks through the flanks than through a central playmaker. Kagawa might even see more of the ball on the left than in the middle.

After all, while ​Kagawa starts on the left his movement into the middle can allow United a moment of dominance in central midfield. And there are few players in the world better than Robin Van Persie at making something of the inevitable through pass or quick one-two that takes the ball into the box.

​If Kagawa’s deployment on the left is indeed purposeful rather than temporary, the United manager must look at options during the summer to better take advantage of it.

​Key is a central midfielder who can break through the lines, adding further dominance in the attacking midfield area. Tom Cleverley certainly makes clever runs, but he is physically unimposing and lacks finishing skills. A midfielder who can strongly challenge for 50-50 balls and shoot from distance might also be welcome.

​Priority, however, lies on the other flank. If United play through Kagawa, and only Kagawa, it will be easy for opponents to stop. On the opposite flank, United’s right-winger must do his share of attacking to provide variety and unpredictability. The classic winger vis-à-vis Antonio Valencia at his peak would certainly do.

With Rafael da Silva more than capable of attacking the byline and providing crosses, a right-winger who looks to cut in and attack the box would also fit in well. It remains to be seen whether Wilfried Zaha, who primarily plays on the right, but cuts inside, can be groomed into a United quality winger of this variety.

Kagawa returns – the question is where

Ed December 20, 2012 Tags: Opinion 36 comments

The highlight of Shinji Kagawa’s disrupted season isn’t quite a star turn at the Manchester United Christmas party, although those of a more cynical persuasion may be forgiven for making the observation. Certainly the Japanese playmaker has contributed little in recent weeks after suffering a knee injury that has sidelined the former Borussia Dortmund star since United’s 3-2 Champions League home win against SC Braga on 23 October. Yet, 23-year-old Kagawa is set to return before the New Year, increasing Sir Alex Ferguson’s options, and in turn creating a selection predicament.

After three lengthy injuries in as many seasons many wish Kagawa better luck for the season’s remainder. After all, the Japanese has demonstrated glimpses of the form that brought 29 goals in 71 games for Dortmund over the past two seasons. Kagawa’s pace, creativity and ability to play between the lines of midfield and attack mark the Kobe-born player out as a potential Old Trafford star.

Indeed, a fine first month of the campaign offered plenty of hope that Kagawa would add much to United’s attack this season – the missing link between Ferguson’s plentiful striking resources and an Old Trafford tradition of deploying wingers.

This hasn’t quite proven to be the case, with Kagawa scoring two goals in just eight appearances before injury struck. In truth the player’s performances tailed off after a fine first month amid changing tactics and Wayne Rooney’s return to the side, although there is little doubt of the 37-cap international’s genuine quality.

Still, Sir Alex will be delighted with the midfielder’s return and the additional attacking option Kagawa brings to a side that has already found the net 43 times in the Premier League alone.  Few managers can boast such plentiful resources in forward areas without the Japanese’s addition.

The question, of course, is quite where the player now fits into a United side that is scoring so freely. After all, Rooney has now formed a fine partnership with Robin van Persie, with the Scouser occupying Kagawa’s former deep-lying attacking role.

In this there are significant consequences in Kagawa’s reintegration into the side, which may prompt Sir Alex to move Rooney wide, deploy the Japanese international out of position, or change a system that is bringing goals, if not defensive stability.

It may be Kagawa that is the sacrifice. Kagawa can play wide, although most observers conclude that the playmaker’s creative impact is significantly impinged from the touchline, while he offers little genuine width.

Certainly, few supporters will countenance another stint for Rooney on the left wing, and there is little benefit to player or club should an expensive new acquisition be consigned to Ferguson’s bench.

Which leaves a potential change in formation, with Kagawa deployed ‘in the hole’ behind a front two of van Persie and Rooney in a narrow diamond formation. The system has been tried before this season, with mixed success.

There is a temptation for change though. After all, Ferguson has not built a reputation as a tinkerer without foundation. Still, with Antonio Valenicia out-of-form, Nani on the sidelines with injury and Ashley Young inconsistent this season, Ferguson has few reasons to resist his greatest seduction.

Yet, it is a decision Ferguson is set to make soon, with Kagawa beginning full training this week at Carrington. Although unlikely to make United’s squad for the upcoming trip to face Swansea City in Wales, the player could well make United’s bench before the year is out.

Still, there are plenty of fixtures ahead. United plays four times in nine days in what could be an influential period domestically –  Ferguson’s side plays Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion at home, before travelling to Wigan Athletic on new year’s day.  Then there is the FA Cup fixture with West Ham United on 5 January and the Champions League knock-out stages, beginning in February.

Ferguson’s potential selection dilemma underscores that the Scot is yet discover his side’s best formation or personnel this season. The 70-year-old manager has evolved between systems, deploying too many square pegs for comfort at times, while failing to strike a balance between attacking verve and defensive solidity. The former and not the latter has won out to date, with the Reds’ unchecked scoring coming at the price of defensive openness.

Kagawa will offer little change there – the former Cerezo Osaka rarely having been deployed in a more orthodox central midfield role at any of his former clubs.

However, as the season shakes out, United supporters may yet see the best Kagawa has to offer. At Dortmund, as the pivotal link between a trio of attackers, Kagawa developed into a player of real talent – helping guide DVB to successive Bundesliga titles.

United offers an international stage and profile unsurpassed, but only if the 23-year-old can force his way back into Ferguson’s side during the second half of the season. Kagawa has rarely failed in the past; few would will bet against him now, although Ferguson’s ability to reintegrate the playmaker into a winning side is key.

Three into two for Kagawa, RvP and Roo

Ed August 27, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 64 comments

There is more than one way to win a football match, it is often said, although at Manchester United leading from an attacking front has so often been the club’s purpose. Not always in recent times though, with manager Sir Alex Ferguson turning to more pragmatic ideals when, on occasion, faced with more limited resources at his disposal.

Yet, whether from a quixotic viewpoint or otherwise, Ferguson can have few reasons to retrench into a defensive mindset this season, with United blessed by the most dangerous attacking line-up since the Reds won the European Cup in 2008.

Two games into the new campaign and Ferguson’s summer decision to revamp his attacking resources has already impacted on United’s forward play, even if his side’s performances have been a little underwhelming to date. There is surely far more to come from an attacking eight that promises creativity, goals and more than a little thrill.

Indeed, new signings Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie have each impressed. While Kagawa has offered fluid movement and subtle creativity, van Persie’s promise of goals came to fruition in spectacular fashion against Fulham at Old Trafford on Saturday.

Each may positively affect the title race this season as Ferguson seeks to wrestle silverware and domestic supremacy away from Manchester City. Closer to home van Persie, and Kagawa even more so, will affect Wayne Rooney’s role and place in United’s side this season.

Ferguson’s team is taking time to knit – not least because defensive injuries have disrupted both the Scot’s back-four and midfield. But the most interesting area of change has been in attack, where Ferguson has rotated his resources and implemented a new tactical system. Indeed, while fans – and probably even the manager – figure out the best attacking combinations in a more fluid 4-2-3-1 this season, it seems unlikely that Ferguson will ever fit all his attacking resources into the same side so plentiful have they become.

United’s two games in the campaign to date are the case in point, with only Kagawa – of Ferguson’s attacking octet – starting both games. van Persie began his time with United on the bench, as did Ashley Young, while Ferguson dropped Nani from the Reds squad altogether for Saturday’s victory over Fulham after a hugely disappointing performance on the opening weekend. It remains to be seen whether the Portuguese remains at the club beyond Friday’s transfer deadline.

Rooney has started one, and failed to finish the other, while Antonio Valencia has switched between defence and attack. Danny Welbeck was picked to start against Everton, but came off the bench in the other, while Javier Hernández and Dimitar Berbatov are yet to appear in the first team.

Constant amid the flux has been the Japanese, whose ability to float between the lines has been the highlight of two contradictory team performances to date. Deployed in the space between midfield and attack, Kagawa could yet become the pivot around whom Ferguson builds a title-challenging side. And if that is so, then it is Rooney who may find his place in the Reds’ attack under threat.

Already there are signs of a blossoming relationship between Kagawa and van Persie, with the former providing the link between central midfield and an attacking triumvirate, whomever Ferguson selects to fill the roles.

“I was pleased with both of them,” beamed Sir Alex after United beat Fulham 3-2 at Old Trafford on Saturday.

“It’s early doors and they’ll have a better understanding as time goes on. It’s normal for us to play one up front with one in behind, whether it’s Wayne who plays in that role or Danny Welbeck. Ashley Young can play there too, Ryan Giggs can… we’ve got options that way.”

It was Rooney who so often dropped deep behind Welbeck last season, with many supporters presuming van Persie would slot into the young Englishman’s place this season. Instead, the former Evertonian is now under the greater pressure, with Kagawa influential between the lines in defeat to Everton, and then scoring against the Cottagers at Old Trafford.

Kagawa’s team-mates appreciate the selflessness of the 23-year-old Japanese internationals play too. It points towards a more flexible attacking unit than the 4-5-1/4-4-2 that United’s manager deployed in defeat last season.

“I love playing with him – one and two touch, high-energy football. We’re on the same wavelength,” effused midfielder Tom Cleverley of Kagawa’s rapid influence.

“He’s brilliant. He has settled in really well. He links defence with attack. He gets on the half-turn and creates chances. I can’t speak highly enough of him.”

Cleverley has taken a deeper role this season than performed for Great Britain at the Olympics this summer, or indeed in England’s victory over Italy earlier this month. But it is a challenge that could yet offer Kagawa the platform upon which the Japanese playmaker’s skills will truly flourish.

Whether an ageing Paul Scholes, perennially inconsistent Anderson or ill Darren Fletcher can give enough support is moot. More likely, United will again rely on Michael Carrick’s experience once Ferguson has enough central defenders at his disposal to move the Geordie forward.

But it is the attacking third on which the manager’s focus has locked this summer after City claimed the Premier League title on goal difference last summer. Only silverware will decide whether the manager’s decision not to strengthen in central midfield is a strategic error, or an inspired gamble.

“We have been low on goals from midfield in recent seasons,” Ferguson wrote in his programme notes this weekend.

“There was a time when Bryan Robson would give you a dozen through the centre of the park and Paul Scholes in his heyday was good for 10 or so but lately we haven’t seen that kind of tally. I believe that Kagawa will put that right, which should ensure that we don’t lose any more titles on goal difference.

“He is very much an attacking player, nominally from midfield but perfectly capable of taking a front role. One thing for sure is that he will add a scoring dimension if he plays central midfield, as he showed last season for Borussia Dortmund.”

Yet, Kagawa’s best work is done in and around the ‘D’, with the former Dortmund star unlikely to drop deeper unless further injuries strike. Sunday’s trip to Southampton is likely to pair van Persie and Kagawa together again, with any two from four deployed in wide areas.

The trip south is also the first of between six and eight matches Rooney will miss for the Reds while he recovers from a deep gash to the right thigh that required surgery under general anaesthetic in Manchester on Saturday night.

Then again, given the form of Ferguson’s new acquisitions, the £27 million Englishman may no longer be guaranteed a start for United when he recovers from the surgeon’s knife.

Welbeck told to hit 20 in fight for United place

Ed July 19, 2012 Tags: , , , Opinion 21 comments

Danny Welbeck can barely have wished for a better first full campaign in Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad. Having returned from a year on loan at Sunderland the Longsight-born striker made 39 appearances for Manchester United last term, 27 of them starts, scoring 12 goals in all competitions. Now, Ferguson has set Welbeck a new task; to score more than 20 in the coming Premier League season. It’s a challenge Welbeck is certainly capable of, but only if the 21-year-old earns sufficient game time.

Indeed, even with Michael Owen leaving the club this summer, and Dimitar Berbatov set to remain on the periphery or depart Old Trafford, Sir Alex must still crowbar four players into two forward spots, whatever the system.

Shinji Kagawa’s acquisition for up to £17 million from Borussia Dortmund means that Ferguson is still likely to rotate a quartet of attacking players in just two roles, whether deploying the 4-4-1-1 system so often seen last season, or the much discussed 4-2-3-1 that seemingly suits Kagawa’s talents.

Moreover, with Javier Hernández likely to hit the ground running after a summer of rest and a full pre-season, there is no guarantee that Welbeck will start the new campaign in Ferguson’s team. With Welbeck unlikely to join the tour party until Ferguson’s squad returns to Europe in August the onus is on Chicharito, Kagawa, and perhaps even Berbatov, to stake their respective claims.

Still, Ferguson’s belief in Welbeck has seemingly been enhanced by the striker’s showing at Euro 2012, where the England number nine scored once – a superb back-heel against Sweden – in four appearances, and walked away from the tournament reputation enhanced.

“If you look at the games he played for England at the Euros, he’s never played three games in seven days before, well certainly not for us,” said Ferguson of a player whom he has seen grow into the United shirt.

“So he did really well in that respect. That’s where maturity and development comes in. We’ve fostered him. He’s always had growth spurts and things like that, so we fostered him right that period when he was developing. I don’t think he’s got his full body yet. I think there’s a lot of growth in him yet. I don’t think he’ll get taller, he’s 6ft 3ins now.

“He’s very powerful and, once that growth thing stops, I think you’ll find he can play three games in seven games. There won’t be a problem with that. He’s got good movement, courage and confidence with the ball.

“Obviously, he will have to improve his goalscoring. I think he got nine goals last season but if you are going to be a top striker you have to get 20 goals or above. That will happen to him, I think he will do that.”

In the meantime Welbeck’s brothers, added Ferguson, continue to negotiate a new contract for the striker, with player and club seemingly at an impasse over the deal. Few expect Welbeck to walk away from Old Trafford when his contract ends in just under a year’s time, but it cannot help but play on the striker’s mind.

Meanwhile, Welbeck will have little hope of unseating Rooney from the first team – the player with whom he struck up a fine partnership last season – leaving three seeking, realistically, a single spot, at least for United’s bigger games. Especially with Rooney so productive last season, even in a deeper role.

“Where Wayne has improved is his consistency in scoring goals,” Ferguson told PA Sport.

“He got 32 goals last season and that has made a difference to his game. It’s difficult to say whether he is at a peak or not but his goalscoring has certainly given us more of a reward.”

Meanwhile, Kagawa, who played around four minutes of United’s friendly victory over AmaZulu FC in Durban on Wednesday night, is seeking what was, last season at least, Rooney’s deep-lying forward role in Ferguson’s side. Either that, or Sir Alex will do as Sir Alex does and push the Japanese play-maker into a wide position.

However, assuming Kagawa isn’t wasted on the wing, the 23-year-old’s best hope of playing a pivotal role in United’s upcoming campaign is to force Welbeck onto the sidelines. Something has to give.

Kagawa is likely to start United’s fixture against Cape Town Ajax this coming Saturday as Ferguson rotates his limited tour resources before United depart for China.

“I’ve joined the club but I’ve not shown my potential yet, so this is my first mission and I hope I can show all the supporters what I am able to do,” Kagawa added after coming on as a late substitute on Wednesday.

“This is a great club and I’m looking forward to playing. I have to prove myself on the pitch.”

Welbeck could say the same, despite the positive showing last time out. After all, while 12 goals is a decent return, a one-in-three strike-rate is unlikely to ensure the youngster remains a starter in United’s biggest fixtures. The challenge for Welbeck is to step up a level, adding a lethal streak to the undoubtedly quality on the ball that the striker has developed over the past two campaigns.

Yet, with Hernández and Kagawa snapping at his heals, it is a challenge that Welbeck will do well to meet over the coming season. Perhaps the biggest task of a fledgling career to date.