For all his legendary success, Sir Alex Ferguson’s transfers represent a mixed bag.
There were inspired investments like the £12 million import of young and relatively unknown, Portuguese starlet, Ronaldo. There were embarrassing gaffes such as the £7m gamble on young and relatively unknown, Portuguese starlet, Bebe. Alongside these, lies another group of players, who despite their apparent talent failed to fit into United’s system or starting XI.
This rare breed earned cult status amongst fans but left little tangible impact on the history books other than their transfer fees. The likes of Diego Forlan could now be joined by Shinji Kagawa.
Signed in summer 2012, Kagawa was Sir Alex Ferguson’s solution to a long term lack of creativity in his side. The agile and intelligent Japanese playmaker had been a genuine star for Dortmund in the Bundesliga and was set for a starring role in Ferguson’s United. Sir Alex had a clear vision, hoping Kagawa would replicate the understanding he had with Robert Lewandowski with United’s own prolific forward, Wayne Rooney.
The logic was clear: Kagawa would hover behind Rooney, whose status as United’s alpha male would be secure at the head of attack. The Japanese international’s ability to manipulate the ball in tight areas and penchant for one touch would allow the duo to link with each other as well as feed through balls to the galloping Valencia, Nani, or Young. Key to the dynamic would be the duo’s complimentary off ball tendencies. Rooney habitually drops deep, whether asked to play number nine or number ten, whilst Kagawa helped himself to 17 goals in 11/12 by drifting beyond Lewandowski with late runs into the box.
It was a plan designed to penetrate the more cultured and organised defences to be faced on European soil, a plan designed to inspire Rooney’s most prolific form, and a plan that was immediately aborted before ever being given a chance to reach fruition.
The first reason for Kawaga’s lack of joy at United was him being a victim of circumstance. The sudden availability of Robin van Persie could not be ignored. His arrival at United had not been a part of Ferguson’s long-term planning or vision, but was the opportunistic punt key to securing title number 20. With the £24 million man a guaranteed starter up front, Rooney was suddenly recast in the number 10 role that had initially been reserved for Shinji.
The unplanned simultaneous signing of RVP and Kagawa created a selection dilemma that Sir Alex struggled to handle, that dented Rooney’s fragile ego, leaving him “angry and confused” and sparked an internal war within United that threatened to reach its crescendo with Rooney’s protracted departure to Chelsea. The fall out of this is simple; while Rooney is at United, Kagawa will rarely be played in his preferred position.
So why can he not follow the lead of Eden Hazard, David Silva, and Juan Mata and adjust to a wide role? Indeed, the playmaking prowess of Honda means he is often shunted outwide whilst on international duty for Japan. Yet the expectation and demand that Kagawa should excel on the wing for United is based on a misunderstanding of his virtues as a player.
He has been unfairly tainted with comparisons to Hazard from the moment Eden chose Chelsea over a transfer to United. It is telling that Ferguson’s initial plan was to sign both of them as Kagawa, whilst sharing the technique and grace of the likes of Hazard does not have the same pace, explosiveness, or penchant for dribbling.
He does have quick feet and the ability to beat a defender or two, but Kagawa’s ultimate strengths are his ability to ghost into space and his foresight when receiving a pass, having a distinct vision of his next play, and the ability and preference to execute it with one touch.
Kagawa, at his best, is a link man able to provide the cutting edge and final ball that converts the work of a deeper midfield orchestrator into goal scoring opportunities for his main forward or goals for himself. At United, he has also suffered the consequences of the problems deeper in midfield. With the central midfielders lacking ideas, Kagawa, when chosen, has been expected to orchestrate.
Yet, his CMs have rarely demonstrated the vision, courage, or technique to play passes into him quick enough when he finds pockets of space. On the few occasions that they do, United’s fans have been treated to flashes of genius: a clever turn or a delicate through ball. Usually, United’s slow and stagnant play in the middle means, he does not receive the ball when or where he wants. As a result, he is uninvolved in play for long periods or marked by the time the ball arrives, and then bullied off of it.
Moyes, who still seems unconvinced by Kagawa’s talents, then singles him out as the player having a quiet game, hence the half time substitution against West Brom this season. The player suffers a dent to his confidence and is less likely to recapture the form that earned his spot in the Bundesliga Team of The Year twice.
Dortmund’s fans have pleaded with United to “Free Shinji!” He does need freedom to realise his full potential, tactical freedom. He can only excel from a starting position on the wing, if he is allowed to drift and interchange at will, but he has and seemingly will struggle to cope with the burden of defensive responsibility and obligation to support Evra. To afford him this freedom would put Moyes at square one with Rooney, asking him to put his personal preferences aside for the better of the team.
So, is there a way to play two of the best strikers in the league and also have a playmaker in the hole? Brendan Rodgers, faced with the same question, has been rewarded for his risky shift to a 3-5-2. Could Moyes follow suit?
Few of the pundits praising Rodgers’ use of this system have noted that its reintroduction is actually another legacy of Sir Alex. A fluid and incisive United fired five goals whilst adopting this system against West Brom in Ferguson’s last Premier League game. Kagawa was superb, linking with Rooney and scoring United’s first. The wing back role also suited Valencia’s versatile attributes, but there is no left sided equivalent and the centre-backs also struggled. United also conceded five. It may not be feasible against quality opposition, but it would be an interesting experiment against those sides who turn up at Old Trafford looking to park the bus.
Ultimately, Adnan Januzaj’s emergence adds another element of pressure and one suspects that Kagawa’s best form is more reliant on United investing in better CMs. Yet, Kagawa has world class talent and such talent should not be wasted. The thought of Kagawa, in his best form, linking with RVP, Rooney, and young Januzaj is an exciting prospect. One wonders if it will become reality. Moyes must discover how to get the best out of him within the next seven months or Kagawa must become another Forlan: a cult hero at United, a genuine star elsewhere.
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