Blog by: Ayush
As news regarding Manchester United’s lineup against Bayer Leverkusen slowly filtered out, discussions emerged over the personnel that David Moyes had put out to face the German outfit in what would be his first game in charge in the Champions League.
However, it wasn’t about Wayne Rooney’s start alongside Robin van Persie in attack, this after Moyes had called the Dutchman his main man upfront, leading Rooney to the brink of an Old Trafford exit during the summer’s transfer window. It wasn’t even Marouane Fellaini’s Champions League bow following the Belgian’s deadline day move to Manchester United. Instead, everyone’s focus was on a diminutive Japanese midfielder who had been making the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
A lot has been said about Shinji Kagawa in recent weeks. While the player has struggled with injury and had to contend with long-haul trips to Japan for international fixtures, Moyes looked to have sidelined Kagawa from his plans at the club, citing the midfielder’s lack of fitness as the reason for his exclusion.
An excellent goal for Japan against Ghana had put water to those claims, while Kagawa’s quotes on his manager, directing journalists to ask the United manager why he was not getting a regular starting berth at the club, were lost in translation, adding more heat to an already fragile situation.
Revolting fans got involved as well, using the hashtag ‘#FreeShinji’ to indicate the shackles that Manchester United, and Moyes in specific, had placed on the 24-year old talent.
After all, in Moyes’ first four Premier League games in charge, Kagawa, a £14 million signing from the previous summer, had played no part, sometimes missing even the substitutes bench, while Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp told anyone listening of his love for the player and his interest in having him back.
Kagawa was eventually started on Tuesday night, with many seeing the Champions League tie as a good match for his more cultured ways. Yet, in a move that many saw as the manager’s attempt to accommodate all his stars, Kagawa was shunted out to the left wing, in turn making room for Rooney to play alongside van Persie.
However, despite being played out of position and not afforded first-team football in recent weeks, Kagawa put in a good shift, especially in the first half, helping United maintain fluidity and possession, and keep the ball moving. At times, it looked like Kagawa was the pivot around which United’s forward movement revolved, as he dropped deep into his own half to collect balls and played it around with ease, switching the play at will.
Despite Kagawa’s inclination to move away from his position and drift centrally, and the loss of shape that came with it, his introduction allowed a positional freedom that hadn’t been noticed in United’s previous games, as the Japanese playmaker managed to get both Rooney and van Persie more involved in the game, the trio’s movement visibly causing the defenders trouble.
Rooney, in full knowledge that he didn’t have to fall back as often to build play, spent more time closer to the goal as opposed to his other recent appearances, while van Persie drifted out to the wings and deeper into midfield as well, as evidenced by his comparative action areas from Saturday’s Premier League encounter against Crystal Palace and the Bayer Leverkusen match.
The switching of positions was reminiscent of the time when Ferguson used to have the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov all playing together, as United’s forward-minded players proved tough to mark for their German opponents and helped create space for one another.
However, where Kagawa’s play did prove to be a disadvantage was his reluctance to hold his position and occupy a consistent role on the left wing. Playing at a club where wingers have traditionally stuck to the flanks and provided width, Kagawa’s inside forward-like abilities did not prove conducive at times, and despite his obvious qualities, even proved to be counter-productive.
In comparison to Antonio Valencia, Kagawa hardly ever reached the final third of the left flank, and while this allowed for the crafty Japanese player to get more involved in the build-up of attacks and drop into pockets of space, it also forced Evra to put in a bigger shift from left-back in order to provide the team some width on the left side of midfield.
As the French full-back bombed forward purposefully and continually to cover the vast empty spaces ahead of him, he also was caught at the back on a couple of occasions, with United’s central midfield duo struggling to stop their opponents from counter-attacking. Given that the Red Devils will be facing tougher challenges in the months to come, starting with a Manchester derby this coming weekend, Tuesday was a warning sign of what could be if Moyes tinkered his team too much to fit his most-skilled performers.
As he slowed down towards the end of the match and started to tire, Moyes finally pulled the plug on Kagawa’s season debut, having partially satiated those who were rebelling against the treatment meted out to the creative midfielder.
However, it also raised an important question. Where should Manchester United play Kagawa?
With United’s capture of Fellaini, and the growing importance of Michael Carrick over the previous few years, a regular berth in a pivot central midfield position seems a scant possibility for the Japanese playmaker, while Moyes’ inclination for the the 4-4-2 or the 4-4-1-1 likely to see Rooney earning a precedence over Kagawa behind van Persie.
There was visible change in Sir Alex Ferguson’s tactics in the years leading to his retirement where he moved away from his tried-and-tested 4-4-2 formation towards a more European one striker strategy, which was arguably good reason for buying Kagawa in the first place. However, early indications from Moyes’ tactics suggest that the side’s shape will inherently not be ideal for Kagawa’s capabilities, especially with Rooney in the side.
This leaves only one of the flanks for Kagawa to occupy, as he did against Bayer Leverkusen. With Nani mercurial, Young possibly in Moyes’ bad books after his dive over the weekend, and Welbeck injured, the time could be right for Kagawa to impress his new manager and lay claim to that position.
How badly he wants to play in a position where he will have his offensive prowess stifled, and how well he can adapt, is a different question altogether.
It might still be a work in progress, but Tuesday night at least provided a start of sorts. Moyes finally did free Kagawa, and while the playmaker lost points for positional discipline and saw his influence wane in the second half, the intangible positives of the midfielder’s game were clear for all to see.
If only United knew where to play him.
*Stats courtesy Squawka