Manchester United began the 2012-2013 campaign away to Everton. Goodison Park is a testing venue at the best of times and United, hampered defensively by injuries, were bullied to a one nil defeat courtesy of Marouane Fellaini.
For United fans the game generated a number of talking points: Wayne Rooney’s ongoing fitness struggles, Robin van Persie’s debut after a dramatic transfer from Arsenal, injuries in defence. But playing just off a patently unfit Wayne Rooney was another player making his competitive bow for United: Shinji Kagawa.
In as uncompromising an environment as one can ever hope to encounter in the Premier League, he flourished. And, despite an early season defeat, United fans couldn’t help but feel excited having witnessed the Japanese playmaker in his first meaningful game for the club. Fleet of foot, deft in touch, gliding across the surface, using both feet, creating chances – modern United, for all their recent glory, had never seen a player quite like this. They had watched similar players spring up at rival clubs: Silva, Nasri, Mata, Hazard, Oscar, Santi Cazorla. Here they had one of their own.
Kagawa built on his debut by scoring in his first home game against Fulham, where he played behind van Persie (who also scored). The early promise soon faded however, impaired not least by a knee injury that restricted his first team appearances from October to January. But while the injury undoubtedly halted his progress, it is far from the sole reason that his impact has been limited.
Kagawa was signed from Borussia Dortmund as a central attacking player. His position is not strictly that of a forward or a midfielder, he operates just off the front, he links the play. I believe that Kagawa was purchased to play off Rooney. In tight games against difficult opponents at home and in Europe, Alex Ferguson had always favoured playing five in midfield. In the past that had meant sacrificing a forward and adding a central midfield player to the mix who might not necessarily have had the creative spark required when United had possession.
Kagawa was the perfect tonic to this. Not quite a forward, not just a midfielder, but still an extra body in the correct area of the pitch, with the guile and class required to make the difference in matches of the highest level where this formation is most frequently called upon.
Then van Persie became available, and Ferguson, always with a penchant for signing classy forwards, simply couldn’t resist. Here was the chance to sign a proven Premier League performer, a world class player. By doing so, he not only significantly weakened a historical rival in Arsenal, he also stopped Manchester City from adding him to their ranks, and he addressed the issue that had ultimately prohibited United from winning the league the season before: goal difference. You couldn’t blame Ferguson, but it certainly changed the tactical approach for the season ahead.
Once Rooney returned to some semblance of fitness and form Kagawa’s place behind van Persie was immediately under threat. It was natural to partner Rooney and van Persie as the first choice attackers. When five in midfield was needed, Rooney could just as easily drop in. As Rooney fell out of favour towards the latter part of the season, the manager turned to Danny Welbeck to operate just off van Persie. The result being that when Kagawa did appear, more often than not he was operating nominally from the left flank. It is from this position on the wing that he also plays for Japan, so while it’s not an unknown element to him, it’s obvious that he is both less comfortable and less effective playing from there (even taking into account his hat trick against Norwich towards the end of the season).
This season, the Community Shield and opening league fixture at Swansea have been the same old story for Kagawa. Welbeck selected ahead of him as a forward, Ryan Giggs ostensibly operating from left wing. The selection of Giggs by David Moyes adds another problem to the Kagawa conundrum. In a sense one can’t blame Moyes – Giggs’ experience was the safe option in these early games of his tenure. But at Swansea, we saw Giggs and Welbeck swap positions for large chunks of the match. Indeed, Giggs may even have played more of his minutes centrally behind van Persie than he did from the wing. Welbeck can do a job from the wing, despite it (much like Kagawa) not being his favourite position. However, to play Giggs through the centre in support of van Persie borders on farcical when a player of Kagawa’s ilk is constrained to the bench. This was a role that Kagawa should have filled, it is his specialist position. Again, perhaps Moyes selected Giggs simply to call on his experience, but it doesn’t bode well as to the opportunities that will be afforded to Kagawa to make an impact in the season ahead.
And perhaps his lack of an impact goes still deeper - maybe it even goes beyond the manager. Perhaps the inability to get the most from a clearly gifted player is somewhat institutional. As mentioned previously, modern United have never really seen a player like this. Historically, their pattern of play has been dominated by wingers and subsequently wing play. Playing through the middle is somewhat foreign to United – it’s not in their DNA, their ethos. Even when Paul Scholes (effectively an attacking midfielder) operated off Ruud van Nistelrooy, the play went through the flanks – it has always been the focus. The idea of operating through the middle is fundamentally alien to United, and it’s a concept they are struggling to grasp at the moment. United have based years of success playing from the wide areas, and the old adage may ring true when considering the integration of Kagawa into the team: if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
Kagawa has said that he was unhappy with his contribution in his first season. His former manager Jurgen Klopp has said that he is one of the best players in the world in his position, but that United are wasting him. It’s hard to disagree – the fans can see a player with massive potential, surely the manager can too. Integrating him consistently and successfully into the side proved a challenge even beyond Sir Alex. Maybe we’ll never see the best of him.