As Mario Gotze inscribed his name in the history books by scoring the goal that clinched Germany’s first World Cup in 24 years, one wonders how Shinji Kagawa must have felt. The Japanese would have undoubtedly been happy to see his former teammate shine on the biggest stage of them all and perhaps he also thought that he too still has a chance of redemption.
Integral figures to the Dortmund side that won back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012, neither Gotze nor Kagawa excelled after leaving the Westfalenstadion and while the former has largely atoned his inconsistent form for Bayern Munich by carving himself a spot into Germans hearts, the latter must be hoping that one of the biggest characters of the 2014 World Cup will give him another chance to shine at Old Trafford.
Since Van Gaal’s appointment was confirmed, United fans have been excited by the prospect of being treated to a brand of football closer to that embodied in the club ethos, with dynamic interchanges between lines and attacking intent replacing the stale, turgid football United served up last season under David Moyes.
Van Gaal’s arrival, and the football philosophy he’ll bring with him, is likely to determine the future of various United players and while the likes of Anderson and Bebe are set to be offloaded on the basis of not being good enough, more talented players like Kagawa could also find themselves on the receiving end of the Dutchman’s swinging axe.
An injury-ridden first season contributed to limited opportunities in the first team and when those chances came, the former Dortmund man was left wanting more often than not. The Japanese managed just 14 Premier League starts last season, contributing a grand total of three assists and he fared marginally better in the Champions League, where he started six of United’s 10 games.
Kagawa’s detractors insist he’s simply not up to the task and his purchase was an ill-advised attempt at addressing the malaise that has crippled United’s midfield for years, while those who defend him claim he’s a misunderstood artist, exiled on the wing rather than deployed in his favourite position.
Based on his performances at the World Cup, the latter theory finds fertile grounds, given the 25-year-old was deployed as left attacking midfielder in Japan’s 4-2-3-1 for both of his starts and failed to impress, as he concluded a disappointment tournament with blanks in both the assist and goal columns.
A manager known for maximising his players’ potentials, Van Gaal, in the eyes of many, looks to be the ideal man to ensure Kagawa returns to his best.
However, while the 62-year-old’s tactical flexibility and penchant for attacking football might count in Kagawa’s favour, there are other factors that could see the Japanese offloaded this summer. First of all, Van Gaal appreciates players who are tactically flexible and versatile, as shown by Holland this summer.
Arjen Robben and Daley Blind, to name but two, covered a host of different roles throughout the tournament. The former played alongside Robin Van Persie in Holland 5-3-2 and 3-5-2, he moved out wide when the Dutch opted for a 4-3-3 formation and even played as traditional wide man when Van Gaal switched to 4-4-2 against Mexico.
Blind, on the other hand, played as left-back and central midfielder and if Kagawa is to figure in Van Gaal’s plans, he’ll need to develop a different dimension to his game, for there are no guarantees of him being deployed in the number 10 position he considers to be his natural role.
Even if Van Gaal was to deploy the same 4-2-3-1 formation United have adopted over the last couple of seasons, Adnan Januzaj, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata can challenge Kagawa for the number 10 role and, throughout, his career, the new United manager has always preferred fielding two strikers or three front men.
Deploying Rooney and Van Persie up-front could either see United adopt a five-man midfield, one in which Kagawa would struggle to find space given he lacks the dynamism to slot into that sort of formation, or a diamond midfield which, in all likelihood, would see Mata behind the two strikers.
Van Gaal has, of course, proved before that he can redevelop players by deploying them in a role they’re not used to cover, just as he did at Bayern when he switched Bastian Schweinsteiger from winger to central midfielder.
Kagawa, however, is a complete different player and the Japanese looks increasingly set to emulate Juan Sebastian Veron in the list of talented players who did not manage to succeed at Manchester United. Should Van Gaal manage to get the best out of the diminutive Japanese, than United will have found an unexpected weapon in their armour.