To some he’s the man tasked with saving Manchester United through a skilfully prepared potion of inch-perfect passes and delicate flicks, to others he’s simply an overrated footballer who will never have what it takes to grab a game by the scruff to its neck, while to others yet he remains an outrageously talented player who will follow Juan Sebastian Veron in the list of those who just “did not fit the system”.
Whatever your stance on Shinji Kagawa is, the Japanese splits opinions with the same incisiveness with whom he split defences wide open when playing for Borussia Dortmund.
Since his arrival in Manchester, Kagawa has floated between being a success waiting to happen, a complete waste of money and a mysterious object, a mathematical equation seemingly easy to resolve and yet so complicated that many seem to have given up on resolving the mystery that shrouds it.
The truth, as it’s often the case, is somewhere in the middle.
Were United to unlock Kagawa’s full potential, they’d have on their hands a player capable to open defences and provide the creative spark United have too often missed over the last couple of seasons, not to mention the fact that by attracting more attention from defenders, the Japanese would free space up for the likes of Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney.
The first 18 months of his United career, however, have only shown glimpses of the Kagawa that had become the hub of the Borussia Dortmund team that won the Bundesliga title two seasons ago.
Kagawa’s lack of contribution, as many have rightly pointed out is due to the him being played out of position, by Sir Alex Ferguson first and David Moyes then, with both managers choosing to deploy the Japanese wide on the left, rather than in his favourite number 10 role, where he thrived in while at Dortmund.
On the other hand, the counter argument is just as valid for while one can’t expect a player to make an impact every time he appears on the pitch for 20-30 minutes, Kagawa has too often failed to grasp his chances partly, perhaps, due to the aforementioned issue with his playing position.
However, if there was anything to be learnt from Tuesday’s dull and uneventful 0-0 draw against Real Sociedad is that Kagawa could prove to be crucial to United’s chances in Europe, were David Moyes to be bold enough to give the Japanese a chance in the role he wants to be deployed in.
Having started the game on the left, Kagawa produced arguably one of his best performances of the season which, ironically, could create more problems than it solved.
The Japanese spent the first hour against Sociedad constantly trying to drift to a more central position, thus exposing Patrice Evra defensively and confirming he clearly isn’t the traditional left winger United and Moyes are craving for, even though Evra and Kagawa showed signs of developing into the sort of partnership Leighton Baines and Steven Pienaar formed under David Moyes’ tutelage on Everton’s left flank.
Whether that’s by design or simply by circumstance, Kagawa and Evra were involved in United’s two-most common passing combinations on Tuesday, with 17 passes going from Evra to the Japanese and 14 going the opposite way, which will have pleased Moyes, particularly considering that Kagawa is never likely to be occupy the number 10 role, at least for as long as Wayne Rooney remains at the club.
Blaming Rooney for Kagawa’s limited opportunities would be an extremely petulant and short-sighted exercise, particularly considering the form Rooney has enjoyed this season, but if there was any proof needed that the United striker is the biggest stumbling block between Kagawa and the number 10 position, those doubts were quelled on Tuesday.
As Rooney was replaced by Ashley Young, Kagawa moved behind Robin Van Persie and thrived immediately, as United created more chances in five minutes than they had done in over an hour. Statistics are a luxury modern football is becoming over-reliant on, but numbers often paint a clearer picture than a thousand words.
In the final 30 minutes Kagawa completed eight of the nine passes he attempted in the final third, one more successful pass than he had completed in the first hour of the game when, crucially, he had only attempted 10 attacking passes, as his attacking instincts were strangled by being played out of position.
And while dropping Rooney would be absurd based on the first three months of the campaign, Kagawa’s performance on Tuesday night showed that, at least in Europe, he must be United’s number one option in the number 10 position, for Kagawa and Robin Van Persie provide the subtlety and movement Champions League football requires.
As tantalising as it might sound, the option of deploying Kagawa behind a Rooney – Van Persie strike partnership can not be entertained given United’s terrible lack of options that would be required in midfield in order to accommodate Kagawa as well as two strikers. Ironically, United’s farcical conduct in the transfer window over the last couple of years, more than a player of a particular strategy, could hamper Kagawa’s career at United.
Should David Moyes solve the jigsaw, he’ll have guaranteed himself a shot at glory this season.
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Tags: Opinion Piece