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Is Shinji Kagawa the answer at Manchester United?

Shinji Kagawa

Today marks David Moyes’ first official day as Manchester United boss, and indeed, the Internet is already rife with pictures of the Scot sat behind a desk somewhere in the depths of the Premier League champions’ training facility at Carrington.

The former Everton manager will already have a number of issues filling up his in-tray, such as his so far unsuccessful pursuit of Leighton Baines and discussions of a new contract with goalkeeper David De Gea following a coming-of-age campaign for the Spaniard that saw him make the PFA Team of the Year, but no matter will be as concerning for David Moyes this summer as the situation regarding Wayne Rooney.

Speculation was triggered in the tabloids following the England international being benched for United’s second-leg Champions League clash with Real Madrid, and despite Ferguson adamantly denying Rooney would be on the move in the summer, the Scot revealed during his final post-match press conference that his forward has made a formal transfer request.

Ever since, a sticky situation has ensued, with the club and Rooney himself distancing themselves from Ferguson’s claim, whilst the mainstream newspapers have speculated moves with every significant European club from Barcelona to Arsenal, with PSG and Chelsea somewhere in the middle.

The ‘showdown talks’ have been built up for some time, due to Rooney being kept busy by the birth of his second son, however, with the transfer window now officially open, United fans will be expecting a clear message from a club that prides itself on avoiding media hysteria sooner rather than later.

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But whilst the transfer saga has so far been dominated by what the 27 year old’s next destination will be, and whether or not he will remain within the realms of the Premier League, an equally as pressing issue is surely how will David Moyes replace his want-away forward?

Rooney may have his fair share of critics, citing the fact that he is yet to reach the dizzy heights expected of him as an Everton teenager as the main cause of their disapproval, but there is no doubt he is an intrinsic part of the first team at Old Trafford, that cannot simply cut-and-pasted out of the starting XI, with the void filled by a replacement from the continent.

A record of 197 goals in 400 appearances for the Red Devils, in addition to 74 Premier League assists throughout his career, speaks for itself, but Rooney’s importance expands beyond his ability to find consistent end product. The United forward has undertaken an incredibly specific role this season at Old Trafford, operating at the tip of midfield and screening in front of Michael Carrick, whilst also providing vital support to Robin Van Persie in the final third. The task requires that constant work-rate, robustness and energy Rooney possesses, whilst his technical ability is equally as essential.  The Premier League champions possess quality and creativity throughout, but in terms of transforming defence into attack and taking the team into the opposition’s half, Rooney’s presence is vital.

With like-for-like replacements few and far between, speculation regarding Rooney’s successor in attacking midfield has been incredibly limited. Thiago Alcantara’s rare contract situation has lead to rumours he could swap La Liga for the Premier League this summer, but we are yet to see any concrete evidence to suggest the Spain Under 21s star will be seeking a move away from the Nou Camp, apart from his £15million availability, triggered by a clause in his contract.

Similarly, with David Moyes reluctant to seem overzealous in his first transfer window, a big money move for an established player appears to be off the cards. The much desired Mario Gotze has already chosen his alliegences for next season, whilst Cesc Fabregas and Luka Modric have dismissed rumours they’ll be pushing the idea of a summer transfer. A number of other promising strikers and midfielders have been linked, such as Christian Eriksen, Kevin Strootman and Robert Lewandowski, but none seem capable of playing in Rooney’s unique duel role, or successfully replacing his physical presence and high work-ethic.

But could it be that the United boss has already written and comfortably filed away in his brand new filing cabinet his ‘Rooney Plan B’ for next season, with the candidate to fill the void already on the roster at Old Trafford? The man I am insinuating as the England man’s successor in attacking midfield is Japan international Shinji Kagawa.

It’s difficult to sum up Kagawa’s inaugural campaign in England in a few simple words, and it’s understandable why overall opinion is divided on the 24 year old. Measuring in at just 5 foot 7, the physical nature of the Premier League could well be too much for Kagawa, and the intensity of the English top flight undoubtedly took its toll this year, with the midfielder sidelined from October to January after twisting his knee in the Champions League.

It’s limited Kagawa’s game time this year, recording just 20 Premier League appearances, and furthermore, limited us to analyse the Japanese’s quality. But overall, from what I’ve seen of the United man, considering he’s not only battled with fitness but also the language barrier this season, I feel he’s shown enormous potential. Six goals and three assists in 17 domestic starts, including a hatrick against Reading, is decent if unimpressive, whilst a pass completion ratio of 89% is a solid return for a midfielder who is predominantly forward thinking.

According to OPTA, his pass completion in the final third stands at 85%, considerably higher than Rooney’s, at 73%. Similarly, Rooney has been directly dispossessed 50 times this season, and lost possession on 398 occasions in 28 Premier League appearances, whilst Kagawa has been dispossessed just 33 times and lost possession 172 times in eight less domestic appearances in comparison to the England international.

Of course, there are several areas where Rooney unsurprisingly trumps his Red Devils team-mate. The 27 year old has created almost double the amount of chances from open play – 33 to Kagawa’s 16 – and this season’s record of 13 goals and 13 assists for 33 appearances in the English top flight and Champions League combined speaks for itself. Furthermore, Rooney also outweighs the Japan international in terms of defensive contribution, winning possession a total of 113 times in the Premier League, including 41 times in his own third and 16 times in the attacking third, with a tackle success rate of 95%, in comparison to Kagawa’s total of just 66, with a tackle success rate of 88%.

But there is only so much you can take from statistics, and there is the ongoing debate regarding what they actually prove that a good analysis from the naked eye cannot. But it’s rather telling that towards the end of United’s title-winning campaign, despite it being a crucial time of the year, Ferguson favoured Kagawa to Rooney on several occasions, and the Japanese outshone his team-mate considerably amid an intense fixture against West Ham, whilst Kagawa’s presence in the squad alone is undoubtedly contributing to the England man’s indecisiveness regarding his future in Manchester.

It may be a surprising hypothesis to some, but prior to this season, Kagawa netted 21 goals in 49 appearances in two years in the Bundesliga, contributing heavily to Borussia Dortmund’s two consecutive league titles. Similarly, he has grown in stature throughout the season, and although his all-round game is yet to reach the level required for the Premier League, we’ve seen from the 24 year old an ability to score and provide goals, keep the ball well, and an undying engine that often leaves him with having covered more ground than the rest of his team-mates in any given fixture.

But can he take the reins over from a man who has been the heartbeat of the United starting XI for the best part of a decade? Gary Neville believes Kagawa’s future lies on the wing, however, I humbly disagree. Rooney very much represents the qualities of the last ten years of the Premier League, whilst his Japanese counter-part could have the unique skills set required in the English top flight’s immediate future. Midfields are becoming weaker, more progressive and technically based, whilst the necessity of pace above all other attributes is becoming more evident by the game.

Kagawa maintains within him both of these integral qualities, whilst also capable of performing a similar role as Rooney in serving his team in both attack and midfield. The Japan international’s performances still have an element of hot and cold about them, but the consistency will come with regular and extended game time.

Fans are crying out for Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to fill the void Rooney would leave behind, others Gareth Bale, whilst pundits have suggested David Moyes will have to reinvent the wheel to some extent, at least in terms of formations, should the England international decide on a summer departure.

But the solution could well be at the club already, in Shinji Kagawa. Installing the entirety of his faith in one player who is yet to fully excel in England is undoubtedly a risk on the Scot’s part, amid a campaign where the difference between success and failure will be slimmer than ever, but it could pay off dividends, whilst also leaving him one less difficult task in the transfer market in terms of finding an adequate replacement for Rooney, which could represent an equally as bold gamble.

Would Kagawa be the answer to Rooney’s departure?

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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Article title: Is Shinji Kagawa the answer at Manchester United?

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