When Shinji Kagawa arrived at Old Trafford after playing a major role in Borussia Dortmund outwitting Bayern Munich for the Bundesliga title 16 months ago, he was deemed to fit in perfectly in the Manchester United side and scale even further heights.
And why not? His quick footed nimble movements, tactical and technical ability to create space, exemplary first touch and the ability to link up play with his colleagues offered an exciting array of talent for the manager at his disposal. It was a dream move for the Japanese international.
Fast forward 16 months – the dream is turning into a nightmare. Even after winning a Premier League title in his debut campaign in England, where he struggled for playing time due to injuries and at other times was largely played out of position, the move from Signal-Iduna Park hasn’t turned out so well for Shinji Kagawa
It seemed things could hardly get much worse for Kagawa in his second season at Old Trafford, but the 24-year old has hardly been preferred by the new United boss, David Moyes, who has restricted the Japanese to only a handful of starts this season, and that too in his unfavored left-wing position where he has let himself down.
You don’t need to possess an eagle eye to witness that Kagawa is most effective playing in a number 10 role behind the main striker, where he likes to get into the pockets between the lines which disrupts the opposition’s defense and draws defenders out of their positions. This was quite evident when he was with Dortmund playing behind Robert Lewandowski, accurately linking up the play from midfield to attack, scoring and assisting goals for fun.
So what has gone wrong over the last year and a half with the skillful Japanese at Manchester United? The answer is quite simple – the different nature of the English league as well as the players around him at Old Trafford.
English football is overtly physical. Here the midfielders playing an attacking role are rarely just the central midfielders and are rather more commonly wingers known for their pace and athleticism. To play in center midfield or a striker in England, one has to be tall, quick and/or physically strong. Kagawa fulfills none of the above.
At 5’8″ and 70 kg, the Japanese is slight in stature. And unlike other diminutive successful attackers in the English league like Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero, he lacks the sudden burst of pace and great upper-body strength to make up for his modest physical attributes.
In the German league, Kagawa’s physical qualities were not a problem. There he could use his technical ability to create space for himself. Moreover at Dortmund, he received sublime service from deep lying midfielders like Nuri Sahin and Ilkay Gundogan where he didn’t have to drop deep to pick up the ball. Also he played quick return passes with Mario Goetze and fed off the headers and back heels from Lewandowski.
His style of play was largely complemented by the sophisticated passing style of the German team, who used to develop their attack in the most subtle ways, from quick turns to dummies to one-two passes. The Japanese used to play mostly in one or two touch at Dortmund.
Manchester United’s style of play, however, is completely different. The reds develop their attack from wide positions where the quick wingers and full backs race up and down the flanks. When the ball is in the center, it’s the pacy strikers like Wayne Rooney or Van Persie who either directly run at defenders on a counter attack, or someone like Rooney plays a long diagonal towards the wings and then race forward to feed off the services from those wings.
When used in a number 10 role at United, Kagawa has Carrick and Fellaini in the midfield, who unlike Gundogan or Sahin, doesn’t play the ball from the deep. As a result, the Japanese has to drop back to receive the ball which effectively puts him out of his position. While playing in the left wing, he again misses someone like Goetze to play those intricate one-twos to keep his game going.
Therefore, Wayne Rooney is much more well suited to play a number 10 role at United as he is well adept in dropping deep to pick up the ball from midfield and then link up the play with the attackers and the wingers.
Kagawa may have had more of a chance to shine this season at United had David Moyes been successful in luring Fabregas or Alacantara to add much more class from deep lying areas in the midfield. Add to that the renaissance of Wayne Rooney in his preferred number 10 role.
The only way Shinji Kagawa can therefore exhibit his best qualities at Manchester United is if David Moyes plays him behind Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie in a 4-3-1-2 formation – which in itself is highly improbable for a team that has always emphasized on width, be it in a 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation.
Shinji Kagawa, thus , needs to re-consider his future at Manchester United where he isn’t getting enough opportunities to show his best qualities as a player. Moreover, David Moyes’ reluctance to give him a regular start in the team further shows he is far away from being in the manager’s plans. This being a World Cup year puts even further impetus for international players on their playing times. Therefore, come January, we may well see Kagawa and United part ways for the mutual benefit of the both.