How strange it is to be watching Manchester United treat the closing weeks of a season as a sandbox rather than a run-in. With their every trophy-hunting hope having been dashed by mid-April all that is now left for David Moyes is a period of extended limbo, ripe for experimentation.
The products of this tinkering could yet decide whether he remains at Old Trafford after the summer, as if the board wish to judge him on his workings rather than the underwhelming final results of the Scot’s first campaign. However, it’s unlikely that any concerns over his process will cleared up more than they have already, with the best football yet played under Moyes coming by accident through a player he previously appeared to have lost all faith in.
It may never have been part of the manager’s plans but as the season draws to an end, Shinji Kagawa looks to have become United’s most pivotal player, and a man who could soon inadvertently help to decide the employment status of the current United boss.
The eureka moment came in the 4-1 win over Aston Villa at Old Trafford when the Japanese spun a cross over for a completely unmarked Wayne Rooney to nod home. It was a goal that benefitted greatly from poor defending, but it marked Kagawa’s first assist of the season. His second followed a week later against Newcastle United when he set up Adnan Januzaj for what would be the third strike in a 4-0 victory.
However, in neither game did he play as the side’s primary playmaker. That role fell upon Juan Mata who has at last begun to meet the expectations he set for himself during his time at Chelsea. That this up-turn in form has come after he was paired with the Japanese attacking midfielder is no coincidence even if the events leading up to their deployment were.
With Moyes’ instinctive, tactical defaults keeping things all-too-rigid and cautious, it’s been hard for the Spaniard to adapt to life at Old Trafford, especially when pushed out onto the wing. Kagawa has been key for helping Mata make the most of his return to the hole in the absence of an injured Wayne Rooney, thanks to his movement.
His ability to dribble past opponents, drive the ball forwards and play clever, one-two’s through the legs of defenders, giving and going around centre-backs, has been exactly what United and their record-signing have been missing. Paired alongside Mata, Kagawa has looked perfectly suited to finding and exploiting any available space, while darting into openings or receiving the ball on the half-turn. The midfielder’s ability to create space this way, or look for a quick, precise lay-off for another runner or passer, has made United almost look dynamic again through the middle.
Never mind that he doesn’t fit the build of a central midfielder. Neither does Tom Cleverley for the vast majority of the time, and the Japanese has effectively replaced the Englishman of late in the first tem, even if he may be more experienced and proficient in a deeper role.
Both as a wingman cutting in from wide, or running up from central positions to ramp up the intensity of their one-touch play, Kagawa has fulfilled the duties of Cleverley with less hassle. He has looked faster both over the turf and in the mind than his midfield colleague, coming into central positions shuttle position forwards to where it’s most wanted.
End product has helped too, with those two assists cracking his personal duck for having made zero direct contributions prior to the goal effort prior to his cross to Rooney against Villa. Finally, Kagawa’s praises can be sung without the need for a data sheet to justify his seeming confusion while on the park through the magic of interceptions, key passes and more. His quality is now visible to even the most pessimistic of naked eyes.
This new found relevancy hasn’t solely come down to Moyes’ need to reshuffle his deck in the wake of injuries however. Kagawa looks more confident and less reliant on others for his self-belief. Change has come from within, with the player making the best of his surroundings rather than struggling to gain any purchase on games as they slipped him by. Even his appearance in the opening Champions League win over Bayer Leverkusen—a 4-2 victory—almost seemed academic somehow thanks to detached demeanour on the field.
Of course, Sir Alex Ferguson himself said the attacker would need a year. Perhaps he was a little optimistic in his assessment, with Kagawa only now showing his value, in behind and around Mata as United’s second violin.
Whether Moyes shows that he realises the magic he’s stumbled upon with this duo, as well as how to make the most of it, could be the make-or-break test lingering in the discussions between those at boardroom level, stubbornly still weighing up his future.
The sense of a special something being missing has pervaded United’s season, and not just because of Fergie’s retirement.
While there were probably as many sets of expectations as there were fans prior to the start of the season, it’s unlikely that many supporters listed a need for the reigning champions to play with some conviction or coherency. That should have been a given.
United weren’t perfect or complete at the end of Sir Alex’s reign but they certainly had enough about them to string a few passes together.
Of late, the Japanese has shown himself able to bring the best out of Mata, quicken up the team’s transitions from back-to-front with his passing and dribbling, and Moyes’ disjointed tactics feel far more fluid. Rather than the goal-scoring midfielder that Jurgen Klopp laments the demise of, he is fast becoming an enabler for others, although that prolific touch in the penalty may well return at some point too.
It seems cliché to talk of catalysts in football these days, but that is exactly what Kagawa is for Moyes and United. Whether he realises it is another issue.