Shinji Kagawa in the summer from Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund was hailed as a masterstroke by most, not only for the reasonable price that they got him for, but because of what he could potentially bring to the team. However, after being beset by injury problems since moving to Old Trafford, is there a danger that the side could evolve without him? Or more to the point, does he have a clearly defined role in the team?
The £12m that United paid for the 23-year-old Japanese international was clearly money well spent, approaching it from both a short and long-term standpoint; he is a cultured, versatile and proficient technical player capable of going beyond the striker and causing damage in the final third. Midfielders that score goals in such a fashion regularly are like gold dust, yet there’s a feeling that his natural style is being compromised at the moment and there is a degree of uncertainty about what role he will fill in the side looking further ahead.
This is not a direct criticism, rather an acceptance of the fact that his first six months at the club have been of a stop-start nature, with a troubling and nagging knee injury, which has left him sidelined for the last two months, refusing to go away. This has clearly impacted on his influence in certain games, but he looks more reluctant to make his trademark darting forward runs, seemingly content to occupy a more creative link role between midfield and attack. Is this merely a confidence issue? Or is he being deliberately shackled for the overall creative benefit of the team?
It’s worth noting that United do not currently have a midfield player with more than two goals to their name; Kagawa has two in eight appearances, with only Tom Cleverley capable of equalling that tally, with two from 14 games. Patrica Evra and Jonny Evans have scored four and three goals apiece, while Rafael has chipped in with two of his own. At the moment, with Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia and Ryan Giggs all goalless, with the increasingly marginalised Nani having little opportunity to add to his solitary strike, there is a real dearth of goals from midfield and they already seem strangely reliant on fellow summer signing Robin van Persie.
Hoping and praying for Anderson to be able to steer clear of injury and string more than three performances in a row while giving the buffet table a wide berth is a fool’s errand and there have been far too many false dawns regarding the Brazilian’s perpetually stagnating progress, but Kagawa made 31 league appearances last season for Dortmund, so this latest spurt of misfortune is the exception rather than the rule, albeit a frustrating reality at the same time.
Kagawa can change this but with Javier Hernandez and van Persie striking up a deadly partnership in recent weeks, it remains to be seen whether manager Sir Alex Ferguson will return to the 4-4-1-1 formation he used at the beginning of the campaign and he possesses an embarrassment of riches up top to choose from, with both Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck to shoe-horn in more often than not too.
The form of Valencia has been of particular concern to many United fans and he simply hasn’t touched the heights of his fantastic assist-laden run towards the back end of last Premier League season yet, setting up just four goals in 15 games. Rooney’s goal record of seven in 14 games is decent, but noticeably he’s already set up seven goals for his team-mates, as he and van Persie have started to find one another with increasing regularity and his success in a deeper-lying role would seem to contradict the need for Kagawa behind the striker(s).
He may need to be pushed out wide in order to find his place in the side, with Cleverley and Michael Carrick increasingly coming to represent Ferguson’s first-choice midfield pairing in games of importance, as the former’s rush back from injury to start the Manchester derby highlighted.
The form of Valencia and Young hasn’t been anything approaching exceptional, yet the side still find themselves seven points clear of rivals Manchester City and coasting at the top of the table, despite developing a penchant for going behind first and early in games and leaking soft goals. It’s been a strange season.
We haven’t seen the best of Kagawa so far because when he’s fit and firing on all cylinders he is a truly outstanding player, capable of twisting a defender this way or that way on the run and threading that eye through the needle pass. He is superb at ‘breaking lines’ and we haven’t seen him do that enough yet. His pressing style off the ball and ability to take the control of possession comfortably in tight spaces are exactly what United have been crying out for, particularly in Europe for quite some time and he is an absolute master at finding space in between the channels.
The worrying thing for City is that with someone of his stature returning to full fitness and yet to hit their stride, they have a potential game-changing player to integrate still. Sound the ‘he’s like a new signing’ klaxon. In theory, he has the ability to create and probe at speed and with precision, with his rapid interplay suiting the likes of van Persie and Rooney down to the ground, but he needs to be given the right platform to start with in order to show his best form.
Nevertheless, there is clear room for improvement in the goalscoring midfield department at Old Trafford and a sharing of the burden is wise should van Persie suffer a lengthy injury; they’ve survived this long without him, but it’s odd how comfortable a side can get looking to one player all of the time to get them out of a hole and without him they may labour a tad more. With the club linked to Chelsea’s Frank Lampard in recent weeks, a player tipped to add both dynamism and a consistent stream of goals from midfield to the side. However, if Ferguson solves the problem of where to fit in the talented Japanese playmaker, the answer may already be right underneath his very nose.