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Tactical Thoughts On Shinji Kagawa

There has been much debate amongst United fans about Shinji Kagawa recently. Some feel his first year at the club has been a disappointment and that he is unlikely to make the grade, whilst others feel he has great promise and will blossom in the years ahead. It’s safe to say that the jury is still out.

His signing last summer was a surprise to most United fans and it raised a couple of key questions, firstly how would he fit into the team and secondly who might he replace? The second question is a bit of a red herring; Sir Alex craves flexibility and rarely plays an unchanged side and Kagawa can play in a number of tactical shapes. This means that a player is rarely seen as an automatic first choice, but rather as a component in a squad, to be kept fresh, match sharp and available to suit the tactical approach adopted for any particular match.

The first question – how he will fit into the team? – is determined by the player’s individual qualities, strengths and weaknesses. So what have we learnt about him so far? Kagawa is technically sound, has a good first touch, reads the game well and can find space in tight areas. He is an intelligent footballer who is comfortable playing between the lines of the opposition’s midfield and defence. He is then in type a number 10. He rarely gives the ball away having a 90.5% passing success rate overall (the second highest rate at the club behind only Scholes), and an 86% passing success rate in the final third (which is better than Scholes).

Why, then, has he not had more of an impact? Kagawa started United’s first game of the season away at Everton, only one of two games he has completed, the other being the recent home game against Norwich City. In total he has featured in 20 matches, making 17 starts (up to the Sunderland game on 4th April 2013). Most typically he has started a game and then been replaced by a second half substitute. In terms of performances he has often started well, but faded as the game has worn on. A number of criticisms have been made, notably that he does not seem to be able to stamp his authority on a game, that he seems to lack stamina (resulting in his fading from games) and that he lacks defensive nous. Most tellingly for a number 10 he has produced very few assists.

Any player deserves some time to settle when moving club, and this is doubly so when the move is to a new country. Kagawa’s first season at United has also been disrupted by injury, the player missing two months after twisting his knee in a Champions League game against Braga in late October. Perhaps as United fans we should be patient; Kagawa’s first year at Borussia Dortmund was similarly disrupted by injury, making only 18 Bundesliga appearances. In his second season he made 31 appearances as Dortmund achieved a league and Cup double. In both of his seasons in Germany he was named in the ‘Team of the Season’.

If Kagawa is to make a significant impact in the years ahead, it is clear that United have to find a role for him in a team shape that suits him. This year on occasions he has been moved out to the left, but this is not his natural position. To thrive he has to play behind a front man in a central position, the area where he had most impact at Dortmund. Perhaps Sir Alex has utilised Shinji out wide because of the general poor form of United’s specialist wide players?

Kagawa has featured centrally this year in three different team shapes.

His first competitive game for the club was at Everton in that opening defeat. This was a bold move by Sir Alex: he played someone new to the club in a key position within a new shape in a tricky away fixture. United played a 4-2-1-3 shape that night with Shinji Kagawa as the one behind a front three of Rooney, Welbeck and Nani. Van Persie also made his first competitive appearance that night as a second half substitute for Welbeck. The game had two notable features: firstly Rooney had a very poor game, with many observing that he did not seem fully fit; secondly Kagawa, unlike most of the rest of the United team, rarely gave the ball away. In this game his pass completion statistics were 91% completion overall and 33 of 37 passes completed in the final third (89%). This is extremely high (Scholes averages 81% in the final third this year). The problem for Kagawa was that everyone around him was disappointing and with Rooney as the central striker underperforming Kagawa’s ability to find space between the Everton midfield and defence was wasted. Despite this, the game illustrated Kagawa’s strength and his potential.

Several people commented on United’s new shape after this game, but in truth it wasn’t that new. United had played this system before in the 2007-08 season, and often to great effect. They also trialled it in the second half of a late game against Swansea City last season, as noted by manutdtactics.com in our end of season review. In that match Scholes occupied the space behind the forward and Cleverley took over his role late in the game.

The second shape in which Kagawa has featured is the midfield diamond used in a number of Champions League group games. He’s had two roles in this system, one as an inside midfield player and the other as an attacking midfield player. The attacking midfield player role is of course essentially the number 10 and this suits him, but the inside midfield player role requires a slightly different range of abilities. The game to consider here is our league game at Newcastle in October. United won this game 3-0, having blitzed the Geordies in the first fifteen minutes to tear into a two goal lead. Kagawa operated on the right side of the diamond with Cleverley occupying the left side. Rooney was in the attacking midfield role and Carrick acted as the pivot. In those opening fifteen minutes Kagawa played a significant role as United enjoyed 78% possession with the United midfield four overpowering Newcastle’s midfield two of Tiote and Cabeye.

That was all good, but Newcastle had to adjust their shape to try and change the game and when they did this required United’s midfield four to respond. Newcastle asserted themselves by changing from a 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1 so that they could compete centrally. This worked for them as they began to get more of the ball and push United back. In this phase of the game Kagawa went even deeper, surrendering space which allowed Newcastle to advance. Most notably the Newcastle left full-back Ferguson, was able to get forward in support of Ben Arfa. In essence Kagawa had not got the balance right: by dropping too deep he had surrendered the initiative and allowed Newcastle to concentrate only on attack on one side of the field. Sir Alex responded by removing Kagawa and replacing him with Valencia, who starting deep, protected Rafael, but always posed a threat with his strong forceful running. Newcastle took a step back and United scored again. This game illustrated a weakness in Kagawa’s game which is that he seems to lack a defensive sensibility. As a number 10 this might not be too much of a problem, but in a midfield diamond it could be. In his most recent outing in this shape he played as the attacking midfield player against West Ham United in the FA Cup third round.

The final shape in which Kagawa has featured is United’s more usual shape, the 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1. The game to consider here is the game against Norwich City at Old Trafford. We have not chosen this match because he scored a hat trick, but rather because he operated at various times in two different roles in this shape and because of how well he worked in tandem with Rooney. Initially and currently some United fans see Kagawa as an alternative to Rooney, but here he showed how well the two could play effectively together.

In this game Kagawa started on the left with Rooney central behind Van Persie and Valencia on the right. It was noticeable right from the kick-off that Kagawa was not going to stay in position on the left. So fluid was he initially that it appeared that he had been given a free role. He popped up in the middle and even at times on the right, with Rooney most commonly dovetailing with his movement. Essentially Kagawa operated between the lines of Norwich’s defence and midfield and in so doing sought out the gaps. Up to the interval Kagawa showcased his football intelligence, his play the only lively element of a drab game so it was fitting that he scored the breakthrough goal just before half time when he popped up on the right hand side of the six yard box.

The game became more interesting only in the second half after substitutions. Sir Alex removed Van Persie and replaced him with Welbeck. Welbeck moved to the left, which allowed Kagawa to move to a central position behind Rooney. United now scored three late goals with Kagawa and Rooney combining superbly, often interchanging positions and looking as if they would score from every move. Manutdtactics.com commented at the time that the final fifteen minutes of football here was amongst the most fluid seen from United for some time.

United’s second goal was superb. Carrick hit a searching pass for Rooney to run onto behind Bassong. Rooney ran on, calmly checked back and laid off a square pass to Kagawa as he arrived into the box. Kagawa was able to simply pass the ball into the net. Kagawa’s final goal similarly demonstrated a growing understanding. This was a lovely free flowing first touch move through the centre culminating in Rooney playing a wall pass into the path of Kagawa who sprinted past the Norwich defence to chip the keeper. This was a fine finish and a great way to complete a hat-trick.

In conclusion and putting aside statistical analysis, what we have seen from Kagawa this year is enough to make us believe that if we can find a role that suits him, as he settles he could be a real asset. He needs to learn to impose himself (a number 10 needs to invent the game) and he perhaps needs to learn how to play in the English league. But he has the ability, the football intelligence and technical skill needed to excel. We perhaps need to have patience.

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101 Comments

  1. Marq says:

    @samuel

    I dont think too many people are suggesting Kagawais better than Rooney. It is just that we want to see us control games better with 3 in the middle, which on paper looks a better fit for Kagawa, since Rooney refuses to play deep now. So rather than just pointing fault at Rooney for his refusal to play deep, we are also looking at Moyes

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