Why Kagawa may be forced to leave United despite offering something we need

by Sam Peoples

By @Samar_Maguire

“Shinji Kagawa is one of the best players in the world and now he plays 20 minutes at Manchester United – on the left-wing. My heart breaks. Really, I have tears in my eyes.” – Jürgen Klopp

Shinji Kagawa had been widely regarded as a sensation for Borussia Dortmund before his transfer to Manchester United in 2012. He scored 29 goals, assisted 12 and ultimately contributed towards three major honours in two seasons for the club, etching him in the hearts and minds of the players, fans and Klopp.

However, it has been a different story at Old Trafford as although the Japanese midfielder made a positive impression in his first season under Sir Alex Ferguson, he has only started one game in the current Premier League campaign under David Moyes. It has been reported that Shinji may be forced to move back to his former club unless he can somehow exhibit the quality that he exemplified in black and yellow – but to do so, should he be utilised in his preferred position for United?

Whilst playing for Dortmund, Kagawa had been most effective behind the striker and caused problems for the opposition with his “vision, technique, movement, and deft passing”. However, his versatile ability to play in a wide position had been a particularly useful asset to Ferguson last season due to the tepid performances of the regular United wingers. Having said that, near the end of the campaign, Shinji was given more opportunities to showcase his talent and played as a number ten, prompting deserved adulation for his performances as United’s new creative outlet.

Moyes has been less inclined to put Kagawa in the United starting line-up this season leaving many fans frustrated when taking into consideration Sir Alex’s assertion that Shinji will be an “even better” player this year. The United manager’s reluctance to start the midfielder even spurred on the “Free Shinji” Twitter campaign to elicit Kagawa’s transfer back to Dortmund.

Moyes had indirectly responded to the complaints in a post-match interview vs. Liverpool by explaining that Kagawa needed to prove his match fitness, but the explanation only caused confusion as he had been unwilling to give Shinji sufficient match time to prove his fitness levels since making that statement.

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This is not to say that there are United players that haven’t deserved starting positions ahead of Kagawa. More recently, Moyes selected Adnan Januzaj who played in lieu of the Japanese midfielder against West Brom and Sunderland, a choice that was vindicated as the 18-year-old provided an added threat, dynamism, and goal scoring ability that seemed void for United.

Moreover, Wayne Rooney has made it difficult for Moyes to ponder between the two as he has scored three and set up two goals in his last six appearances.

That being said, United have struggled to conjure a sufficient number of goal-scoring opportunities in various games and have created less chances than all of the other top four contenders in the Premier League.

Numerous fans have suggested that Kagawa could be the answer to United’s creative problems but his appearances have been limited due to the performances of other players in his position. However, there are several arguments to suggest that the midfielder should be given an opportunity to start behind the striker, irrespective of the form that other players might be displaying.

It’s hard to argue with Moyes regarding his eagerness to play Rooney. Not only because of his attempt to convince Wayne to stay but due to the level of performances the striker has put in for the team, arguably surpassing the standard of the performances his team mates have given so far.

Near the end of the 2012/13 campaign, Rooney requested a transfer after growing frustrated with his role in the United team. It may not have been a formal request but it had been clear that the England striker wasn’t happy in centre midfield, the position bestowed upon him by Ferguson to provide a level of creativity that United lacked throughout the season.

However, when Moyes was appointed, the United manager was told to prioritise convincing the former Everton forward to stay at the club. Since Moyes’ tenure, Rooney has played in eight out of nine games for United this season.

It’s hard to argue with Moyes regarding his eagerness to play Rooney. Not only because of his attempt to convince Wayne to stay but due to the level of performances the striker has put in for the team, arguably surpassing the standard of the performances his team mates have given so far.

Nonetheless, there have been a number of games where it seemed ideal for Kagawa to come on as a substitute for United but to no avail, begging the question whether Moyes has decided that he does not rate Kagawa as much as Sir Alex did. It could also be argued that he may have developed a bias towards playing Rooney based on his agenda to safeguard the England international.


United haven’t been struggling with possession this season as they have accumulated the third best possession stats in the league behind Swansea and Manchester City.

However, there were moments in the Sunderland game, for example, where Rooney almost appeared to be playing up front with Van Persie, giving the midfield and the strike force limited chance to link effectively and forcing the midfielders to operate down the wings.

The table above indicates that in the last five games when Rooney started behind the forward, he spent the majority of his time playing either in the hole or further up front. On the contrary, Kagawa, who when starting in the forward line last season, preferred to spend the majority of his time in the centre circle and in the hole, adding depth to the midfield whilst also synthesising with the forward line – very useful if we consider that the 4-2-3-1 formation is now ubiquitous.

If we look back at the first goal for United in the Sunderland game, Januzaj took the role of Rooney and Kagawa by interchanging with Patrice Evra, lofting the ball to the Frenchman and then following through after the return pass. In the same move, you saw Rooney playing further forward than Van Persie and without a player like Januzaj, it would have been much harder to establish interplay within the hole and other members of the team.

Curiously, despite United’s ball possession statistics this season, Rooney has the fifth lowest passing accuracy statistics in the team (73%) and in the last five games in which he completed 90 minutes, he had an accuracy of 71%. Last season behind the striker, Kagawa’s passing accuracy was consistently high (89%).

This isn’t to suggest that Rooney doesn’t have the capacity to be effective in games as he is showing a clear proficiency in contributing through set pieces this season. However, the fact that United are struggling to create chances or show efficiency in the final third in comparison to other competitors in the league, suggests that Kagawa could provide a far more patient and potent build-up.

kAGAWA2The pitch percentage indicator manages to shed light on where Kagawa creates the most of his chances.

From this, it would seem clear that the Japanese midfielder is far more efficient through the centre than on the left, distributing 53% of his key passes in the hole.

Furthermore, in the modern game, we are seeing the vital importance of wingers working as rigorous defensive outlets. Successful managers such as the likes of José Mourinho have found it difficult to choose creative options like Juan Mata simply because the Spanish midfielder doesn’t track back enough.

Similarly, under former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola, Ronaldinho had allegedly been seen as too individualistic and not conducive to team interplay, prompting the Brazilian to eventually fall out of favour and leave the Catalan giants.

In his first start in the Premier League against West Brom, Kagawa drifted towards the middle from his starting spot on the wing and had the tendency to remain there, leaving the fullback exposed at times. This could suggest that using him on the left can be a hindrance to the team rather than a benefit which may be indicative of why Kagawa isn’t starting behind the forward, due to his inability to defend as doggedly as Rooney.

If Shinji does eventually decide that he’s better off at his former club then it might be for the greater good, as the midfielder is far too capable to be placed on the bench.

Rooney revealed that he re-considered his future at United last season because he had been repeatedly played out of position and wanted to play up front. In an ideal world, you’d want Wayne to start in a striking position based on the sheer number of goals he’s scored for United over the years.

However, you’d also want the majority of your talented players to start in the same line-up which would imply that Kagawa would start alongside Rooney and Van Persie. Realistically, Moyes is unlikely to adopt radical formations in order to cater for the needs of his talented players, so ultimately the capacities of an individual are inevitably compromised for the benefit of the unit.

Having said that, there were instances which displayed Shinji linking superbly with Wayne such as Norwich last season where Kagawa grabbed a hat-trick and Rooney got two assists and a goal. It had been the industry of Rooney and Kagawa that ripped open the Canaries defence after Van Persie’s substitution on the 66th minute. This might be an indication of Kagawa and Rooney’s compatibility but based on the clinical nature of Van Persie, having scored three in six this season, it is thus prevented from happening.

It seems presumptuous to suggest that Kagawa will struggle this season, simply because we don’t know what Moyes has in mind and what will happen in the future. Nonetheless, the fact that Van Persie is scoring goals, Rooney is on form and Januzaj has proven to Moyes that he has sufficient talent to make an impact, makes it difficult to envisage how Kagawa will fit into the first team.

If Shinji does eventually decide that he’s better off at his former club then it might be for the greater good, as the midfielder is far too capable to be placed on the bench.

Do you think Shinji Kagawa should be Manchester United’s #10? 

Visit Samar’s Manchester United blog here.

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