This article examines Manchester United’s Japanese superstar Shinji Kagawa and explores his imminent future at this, the opening of the new season.
The early indications suggest that incoming Red Devils boss David Moyes is set to continue Sir Alex Ferguson’s tactical approach and setup with the English champions. Practically, this will mean two banks of four, with a great focus on width and expanding the playing area, plus a central striker supported by another forward linking midfield and attack.
The central striker will surely be Robin van Persie, but beyond Michael Carrick, the regular identities of the other four offensive players will certainly be debated and will chop and change as the season unfurls.
In Moyes’ two latest games we have seen both Wilfried Zaha and Antonio Valencia take up a spot on the right wing. The former offers youthful exuberance and flair, while the Ecuadorian brings incisive attacking and tactical maturity.
Against both Wigan—at Wembley—and Swansea in the Premier League, Danny Welbeck took up position behind van Persie. The England international has energy and is versatile, as well as a renewed goal threat, as he demonstrated with such aplomb against Swansea.
Against the Swans, Welbeck alternated positions with Ryan Giggs, who began the contest on the left flank. Giggs—now 39—evidently lacks the verve and dynamism of Welbeck but possesses guile and nous in abundance.
Giggs starting out wide but with the flexibility to come inside allows younger, quicker players to burden some of the defensive responsibility in the heart of the pitch. However, it also permits him to drift in and influence the action with majestic touches and prodigious vision.
As the Swansea fixture wore on, Wayne Rooney was introduced in place of Giggs and his ageing legs.
The troubled England international took the central berth, pushing Welbeck out wide, and managed to have a hand in United’s third goal, creating space and opportunity for van Persie to put the contest beyond Swansea.
The explosive, if unpredictable abilities of Nani and Ashley Young ought to be added to the equation, while Moyes is still seeking the signature of an elite player to change the complexion of his side’s midfield. Tom Cleverley is another versatile contributor from whom a lot will be expected this term.
So where, you might ask, does Shinji Kagawa fit into this nexus of talent?
In assessing the Japanese midfielder’s strengths and weaknesses, we are able to imagine the best utilisation of this sublime talent within Moyes’ United setup and alongside the club’s current crop of individuals.
Following his encouraging debut season in the English top fight, the starlet faces an important year of consolidation and progression.
Moyes’ handling of Kagawa could well prove to be one of the most crucial aspects the manager faces during the early stages of his tenure; it will certainly have a major effect on the midfielder’s future.
While the Scot's maiden summer in the hot seat has been beset by news of discontent and unfulfilled ambitions on the part of Rooney and in the transfer market, Moyes may well see in Kagawa an opportunity to prove himself above and beyond the shadow of Sir Alex.
While Ferguson brought Kagawa to England and oversaw his early, encouraging United career, his devastating talent was only evident sporadically last year. The youngster struggled to rack up the game time needed to fully adapt to the Premier League and when he did play, he was often stationed out wide rather than in his favoured central position.
Kagawa’s impeccable endeavour and commitment during preseason have been a clear indicator of his desire to impose himself further on this United side, the onus is now on Moyes to make the most of the former Dortmund man’s myriad of talents.
The first thing might be a commitment to playing Kagawa in a central berth—in this sense, the potential departure of Rooney might be the ideal prerequisite for the Japanese player to blossom.
While he was effective out on the left flank last term, many lamented his absence from the centre of the park.
Juergen Klopp, for example, expressed bafflement at Ferguson’s sustained proclivity to using Kagawa out on the left flank for United. The Dortmund boss indicated that a regular spot in the centre of the park would be far more beneficial for player and club.
He said, as reported by Goal.com: "Shinji Kagawa is one of the best players in the world and he now plays 20 minutes at Manchester United—on the left wing."
Clearly in Klopp’s mind, the man who excelled for him so prominently behind a central striker ought to be fulfilling the same role over in Manchester. This is a position that is nominally filled by Wayne Rooney at the moment, the Englishman fitting in behind van Persie and linking the midfield and the attack.
The German boss also suggested that he believed Kagawa ought to receive more game time. This is a second issue that would be helped by a Rooney departure. Were the former Everton star to leave for Chelsea or elsewhere, this would free up the roaming position behind van Persie, leaving Welbeck and Kagawa to contest it.
It may be that the Japanese international is a better fit for this position.
Welbeck may have demonstrated some excellent finishing against Swansea in the league’s opening day, but he was too often found wanting in front of goal last term. In 27 league appearances for champions United, he only found the net once.
Jonny Evans, the defender, scored triple that amount in fewer Premier League outings.
Kagawa, on the other hand, is a goal scorer of some pedigree.
During two years in the Bundesliga he scored an impressive 21 goals in 49 games—a remarkable return for a player taking his first steps in European football.
These statistics allude to a tremendous eye for goal, one that was only on show on scant occasion last term. When Kagawa did fire, however, his class was clear. Few in attendance will ever forget his sterling hat-trick performance in the March demolition of Norwich.
All three of his goals in this clash were close-range finishes—evidence both of his clinical finishing, but also his excellent anticipation, movement and positioning. His work alongside Wayne Rooney that day, his off-the-ball movement and interaction were also terrific, showing Kagawa to be an astute team player.
On that day he became the first Asian player to ever score a hat-trick in the Premier League and took his own personal tally to five. Moyes will be hoping for many similar days this season and will be encouraged by the fact that during that Norwich game, the Japanese international began on the left flank, with Rooney in behind van Persie.
It showed that he can still make an enormous contribution from a wide position.
Kagawa also possesses considerable technical ability, and this might further convince Moyes to use him in a central berth.
Again, referring to that clash against Norwich last season, Kagawa’s interaction with Welbeck and Rooney was exceptional. He is able to move the ball at pace, facilitate quick interchanges and forge space for others with incisive movement and passing. These qualities would be hugely effective in the centre of the park, where guile and technical mastery is often required to break down stubborn EPL defences—particularly when attacking wide is yielding little reward.
One weakness to date, and perhaps a reason why Ferguson resisted placing too much burden upon Kagawa, is his perceived fragility. A knee problem sustained in October derailed his promising start to life in Manchester, and it clearly took him time to rediscover his stride and to adapt to the pace and rhythm of his teammates.
In over 20 league appearances, he completed the 90 minutes on only five occasions. Furthermore, he was substituted in 60 percent of his league outings and in a further 15 percent he entered from the bench.
Both player and manager will hope that such issues do not beset his season this time around and that he can enjoy an injury-free campaign, contributing in a much more sustained fashion and demonstrating to United fans exactly what he can bring to Old Trafford.