This week brought us the long awaited news that Manchester United had finally agreed to a deal to bring Shinji Kagawa to Old Trafford, pending a successful medical and the obtainment of a UK work permit.
Presuming that all the Ts are crossed and Is are dotted as smoothly as the Red Devils hope they will be, Kagawa’s move should be finalised before the end of June, meaning the Japanese international would officially become part of the United playing staff on July 1 when the transfer window opens.
The transfer signifies a huge acquisition for the club.
Last season, with the likes of Tom Cleverley, Anderson and Darren Fletcher all suffering lengthy injuries, the role of attacking midfielder was one that went largely unfulfilled.
With the playmaker now assumed to be on board, Sir Alex Ferguson finally has a substantial talent in an area of the pitch that has been so vital for Manchester United in their recent history.
Although the Scotsman may not change his squad too dramatically after United’s second place finish in the 2011-12 campaign, Kagawa’s arrival will certainly herald a shift in tactics, and possibly formation.
This slideshow will consider only players currently at the club, with Shinji Kagawa as the only exception, in the case that United chooses to make no more transfers this summer.
With the Asian star in the ranks, let's consider what a Manchester United starting XI may look like on the opening day of the 2012-13 season.
After enduring a difficult start to life in England, David de Gea looks to have finally reasserted himself as the first-choice goalkeeper for Manchester United.
The Spaniard completed a £17m summer transfer last summer–a British record for a goalkeeper–and hopes were high for the starlet barely out of his teens.
With Edwin van der Sar having just opted to retire from his playing career, de Gea had giant shoes to fill in terms of the suit he would be following.
The Dutchman had broken numerous records for the Red Devils during his time at Old Trafford, and was a part of the team that proved triumphant in the 2007-08 Champions League, heaping pressure on de Gea.
After a series of hiccups, most of which came from the air, de Gea was sporadically dropped in favour of Anders Lindegaard, the older and seemingly calmer head between the sticks at Old Trafford.
Following a serious injury to the Dane however, Lindegaard once again took up a seat on the sidelines and de Gea regained his place in the starting lineup for the second half of the season.
The youngster finished with a saves-to-shots ratio of 77.9%, the best in the English top flight last season.
A year more experienced, and with more knowledge of the league now under his belt, de Gea is almost certain to retain his spot as Manchester United’s first choice stopper as he seeks to justify the price-tag that brought him to England in 2011.
Twelve months ago, it was announced that Manchester United had agreed a deal to sign Phil Jones for a fee of £16.5m; an announcement that was met with a chorus of: “What? You mean that kid from Blackburn?”
A year on, and the youngster is now one of the more prominent figures in the Manchester United defence having made a very promising start to his England international career.
Originally believed to be brought in as “one for the future,” Jones was actually thrust directly into the Red Devils' starting XI, and went on to make 25 Premier League starts for the club this season along with a heavy involvement in their Champions League run.
A centre-back by nature, Jones was also quite often utilized at right-back due to Rafael's frequent injuries and the departures of Wes Brown and John O’Shea to Sunderland.
It may not be the 20-year-old's first-choice position, but Jones showed what a naturally gifted talent he is and made the full-back position his own when he had to.
Jones also made appearances in defensive midfield when Anderson and Darren Fletcher saw periods on the sidelines, further showing his versatile attributes.
With the likes of John Terry, Gary Cahill and Joleon Lescott staking their claim on central defence, Jones has been forced out to the right side of defence for England too, and is in contention to start for the Three Lions at Euro 2012 ahead of Glen Johnson.
A truly diverse prospect capable of operating across the defensive line, Jones is sure to get even more starting experience in 2012-13, especially considering his manager’s preference to breed young talent.
With over 45 starts for the club last season, Patrice Evra is undoubtedly Manchester United’s “go-to guy” at left-back.
In the absence of injury stricken teammates Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, it was Evra who fulfilled the captaincy responsibilities for decent stretches of the campaign.
The 31-year-old has little in terms of competition for a starting berth, with Fabio da Silva the only other natural left-back in the first-team squad.
Despite his age, Evra’s speed and agility remain two of the player’s biggest assets, and the former Monaco defender remains a world class full-back who is set to feature for Les Bleus at Euro 2012.
After badly twisting his knee in United’s final Champions League match of the season, Vidic missed the vast majority of the 2011-12 campaign due to injury.
And what an absence he was.
Without the Serbian stalwart in the backline, Sir Alex Ferguson had to rely on the younger members of the team to pick up the slack in central defence, such as Johnny Evans, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones.
While the latter two are definitely some of the hottest prospects in the Premier League, and are destined for bright futures at both club and country, experience also has its benefits.
At 30 years old, it could be fair to say that Vidic’s best days are behind him, but that isn’t to say that he won’t still have a role to play at Old Trafford in seasons to come.
The defender is among the best of his kind when at the top of his game, and is a fearsome figure both in the air as well as when standing up against opposing attackers.
If Vidic does indeed make his return to fitness in time for the start of next season, it will be interesting to see how such a bad injury will have affected his standard of play.
Regardless, assuming that the 6' 2" middleman is healthy come August, he is easily one of the first names down on the Manchester United teamsheet.
In what will be his tenth season playing for Manchester United, Rio Ferdinand remains a key component in the club’s makeup.
Coming up on the massive milestone of 400 competitive appearances for the Red Devils, “Ferdie” may not pose the same defensive threat that he did in 2002, but then again, that is a massive figure to live up to.
Ferdinand made 37 starts for United last season; a respectable tally when you consider the problems that the centre-back has had with injury.
Recurring knee and back injuries prevented the defender from featuring in a number of key matches last season, when his experienced head would have been much appreciated—especially when you consider that central partner, Vidic, was also out of action.
Another reason that Ferdinand will still be a powerful figure for United next season is redemption.
The 33-year-old was reportedly upset at being left out of Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2012 squad in favour of John Terry, and that mood wasn’t helped when the England manager opted to bring in Liverpool youngster, Martin Kelly, following the injury of Gary Cahill.
As such, Ferdinand–not the type to let a grudge go–will be out to prove all those critics wrong with a superb club season for Manchester United.
Now we get down to the more serious business of positions that will be directly affected by the arrival of Shinji Kagawa.
The centre of the park was probably the area in which Manchester United struggled to fill out to their usually high standards last season.
As mentioned earlier, Darren Fletcher was ruled out for most of the campaign with a bowel condition, Anderson suffered a knee injury that kept him out of action for five months and Tom Cleverley struggled with multiple ankle and foot injuries.
This led to Paul Scholes being called out of retirement at the start of 2012 after only taking his bow the previous summer.
Despite being 37 years old, Scholes showed during his latest five months as a Red Devil just why he has remained as a player at the elite level for almost twenty years straight now—epitomized in his signing of a one-year contract extension for the 2012-13 season.
Whereas the link wasn’t always evident between midfield and attack last season, the creative input of Kagawa will allow Scholes to rest his weary legs and simply pull the strings of each and every attack he can get his hands (or feet) on.
In what will likely be his last season as a player at the club, Scholes can sit further back in the coming season and merely maintain fluidity, while allowing younger, more energetic starlets to express themselves more freely.
Provided that he can recover from his diagnosed case of ulcerative colitis in the coming months, there’s a good chance that Darren Fletcher may yet feature as part of the Manchester United midfield again.
It was feared that the Scotsman would be forced into an early retirement thanks to the chronic bowel condition, and although the club are yet to give any official signs of Fletcher’s improving condition, things don’t appear to look as bleak as they once did.
The 28-year-old has totaled over 300 appearances for Manchester United since making his first senior appearance for the club in 2003.
If lined up as a central partner with Paul Scholes, the two unselfish players would merely feed the more creative impulses of others, not being ones to steal the limelight for themselves.
In recent seasons, Fletcher established himself as a key member of the United starting team, regularly making over 40 starts for the club in one season.
That sort of trend is of course now in danger, but provided that the Scottish national captain can make a speedy recovery, he can beat the likes of Michael Carrick and Anderson into the starting XI.
Now for the name on everybody’s lips: Shinji Kagawa.
Despite being only 23 years old, the Japanese international comes to Old Trafford with gargantuan responsibilities on his shoulders, some of which he may or may not even be aware of.
As has been noted already, injuries to Tom Cleverley and Darren Fletcher stunted the creative options of Manchester United greatly, and meant that a variety of players had to pick up the playmaking slack at times.
Wayne Rooney, Nani, Ashley Young, Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-Sung all played the unnatural looking role of attacking midfielder at one point or another in the 2011-12 season along with others.
Kagawa is being brought in to plug that void.
Last summer, Ferguson’s side was allegedly inches from signing Wesley Sneijder, a player who would have filled a near-identical role, but at his valuation and salary cost was deemed too expensive.
It may just pan out to have been very suitable to pass on that deal, as the 27-year-old’s form looks to have taken a slight dip, not to mention that he is four years Kagawa’s senior.
Kagawa’s position will be one of creation.
The former Cerezo Osaka starlet will sit just behind the attacking line, orchestrating the attacking play and allowing the likes of Rooney, Hernandez and Welbeck to make forward runs while he sits slightly deeper.
That isn’t to say the youngster isn’t capable of a goal or two himself however; he scored 17 of them for Borussia Dortmund last season.
The most important part of Kagawa’s play is certainly his supply, however. Despite his excellent goal rate for a midfielder, the 23-year-old gives an endless chain of ammunition to those playing ahead of him, whether he does it from the wing or his more accustomed central position.
After Mario Götze’s injury that ruled him out for a great deal of the second half of the season, Kagawa was truly allowed to flourish for Borussia Dortmund and stated his claim for the Player of the Season award.
With Kagawa now at attacking midfielder, Rooney can go back to the role of striker that he has longed for so badly, and where he is no doubt at his most deadliest—but more on that later.
With a serious argument for Manchester United’s Player of the Year accolade comes Antonio Valencia who had what was definitely his best season to date at Old Trafford in 2011-12.
The Ecuadorian started the season on the bench, playing second fiddle to Nani and summer recruit Ashley Young for the most part.
However, nine months later, Valencia was the winger in the best form and was only slightly held back by a minor injury.
After proving himself in 2011-12, the 26-year-old has high expectations to live up to next season and will be relying on his new teammate, Kagawa, to help him reach them.
With the Japanese international almost amongst their ranks, Manchester United again have a player that can pick the passes that so many find it hard to pick.
At the Westfalenstadion, it was often Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kevin Großkreutz who would line up on the right and left wings respectively, while either Kagawa or Mario Götze would play the puppeteer between the two.
You can expect to see a very similar style of play emerge at Old Trafford this season, now that the Red Devils have a playmaker worthy of their high performance levels.
Valencia finished the season with a tally of 16 assists and six goals to go with them.
With Kagawa now finding his runs down the right touchline, it’s more than possible that the speedster can better those achievements in the next campaign.
In a similar case to his teammate plying the opposite flank, Kagawa’s arrival in the Premier League means nothing but good omens for Ashley Young.
Although there may be an underlying issue of competition for the wing positions, the first and most prominent priority for the Japanese international lies slightly more infield.
As explained in the previous slide, Kagawa will merely sit and formulate against the opposition, and while he does have a penchant for an attack of his own, releasing the potential of those around him will be a more common sight.
At times this season, Young found himself being dragged more centrally than he might have liked in a similar fashion to the way that he currently is for the English national side.
With Wayne Rooney suspended for the first two games of Euro 2012, and a lack of attacking midfielders in the England squad, Young will find himself sitting unnaturally behind the forwards.
While he might do an admirable job in the role, Young’s best play undoubtedly comes from the wing, and his superior crossing as well as an eye for goal makes him United’s first choice for the position.
It speaks volumes that the club can afford to have a talent such as Nani on the bench, but the Portuguese international’s flair and explosive style is balanced out by his wild inconsistency, resulting in him falling down the pecking order to Young, who arrived at Old Trafford for a fee of around £18m last summer.
Apart from Kagawa himself, the player who will benefit most from the arrival of the Borussia Dortmund star is, without a doubt, Wayne Rooney.
For massive portions this season, the England talisman found himself dropping deep into his own half so that United had a player on hand to snap up any loose ball were it there to be had.
Of course, the problem with this is that it meant that the team’s biggest attacking threat was then left in a sort of “limbo” where he wasn't nearly as effective.
With Kagawa now replacing him, Rooney can revert to a position that he was more accustomed to playing in when Cristiano Ronaldo was at the club.
Even as the sole striker, Rooney has the ability to terrify defences, and can hold the ball up while reinforcements arrive should the occasion call for it.
With 34 goals across all competitions last season, one can only assume that Rooney will be even more successful in the 2012-13 term where he will be permitted to play in a more advanced role on the frequent basis that he deserves.
Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez may not be over the moon at Kagawa’s signing with the club, as it means that United may well employ a formation with just one striker, limiting their first-team chances.
One man whose starting spot isn’t even up for question, however, is Wayne Rooney, who you can expect to see flourish even further in what will be his ninth season at Old Trafford.