Why Shinji Kagawa Could Still Be Manchester United's X-Factor
Injuries to key players have hampered the team's progress, but there has certainly been no lack of attacking fluency.
Led by Robin van Persie, the Red Devils have scored goals for fun, while strikers Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck have also chipped in with influential cameos.
Yet some questions remain unanswered regarding the side's midfield.
Putting aside the wingers' current lack of form, is Sir Alex Ferguson dead set on Wayne Rooney as United's long-term No. 10? Where does that leave Shinji Kagawa?
Though long periods of absence from the first team haven't helped, Kagawa seems to be the forgotten man of Old Trafford at present.
Until van Persie signed on the dotted line, the Japanese international was the club's marquee signing of the summer.
His £12 million transfer (potentially rising to £17 million) was hailed as a true bargain, and one to add a new-found dynamism to the team's usual way of playing.
While at previous club Borussia Dortmund, Kagawa formed a lethal partnership with Robert Lewandowski, helping the German club to back-to-back Bundesliga titles in 2010/11 and 2011/12.
Utilising his exceptional timing he racked up the assists, providing Lewandowski with pinpoint through balls and long passes from both a deep position and in tight, one-touch situations.
His understanding with the forward, as well as with his midfield partners in crime Mario Goetze, Kevin Grosskreutz and Lucas Barrios, were key to Jurgen Klopp's side success.
In his new environment, though, Kagawa's true self has yet to truly emerge.
Whether or not this is due to injuries or the emergence of Rooney as a dominant playmaking presence, or even Fergie not having played to his strengths, remains to be seen.
Based on his best performances in Germany, Kagawa's strengths are clear. But can the Red Devils incorporate him properly?
He is an exceptional physical specimen. His stamina and initial burst of acceleration should add a sustained tempo to his team's play—Sir Alex's side has always been one that prides itself on its lightening pace.
One of Kagawa's best attributes is his swift, accurate passing in tight situations—one-twos and give-and-gos are something of a speciality for the playmaker.
Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney are at their best in snappy link-up play—if the Japanese international were to be given a chance playing behind one of them, good things are likely to happen.
Playing in a deeper position, such as the shuttling role in the diamond formation or as a central midfielder in the 4-4-2, is not the answer to unlocking his potential.
He needs to operate between the lines—playing as a pivot in front of the opposing defence rather than struggling to break through a packed middle of the park.
His finishing in and on the edge of the box was often terrific at Dortmund, we've yet to really see that from him this term.
Another of Kagawa's renowned abilities is the ease in which he finds pockets of space in which to operate. His ability to receive and quickly distribute the ball out wide should be a major selling point for Sir Alex.
He can never see too much of the ball during a game. Let him act as a conduit rather than as a mere bystander when the team is in attack.
At Dortmund his constant harrassment of the opposition led to regular turnovers—the art of defending from the front. This has been one of the key reasons Barcelona has been one of the most efficient teams in recent history.
Perhaps the 4-4-1-1 formation would be best in this respect. But one has to wonder if Wayne Rooney could do the deeper-lying job alongside Michael Carrick in midfield.
There are, of course, deficiencies in Kagawa's game. For all of the positives, he still has to iron out a few issues plaguing his form.
In a recent interview with British newspaper The Independent, he was quick to outline the advice that coaches at Carrington have given him (h/t Daily Mail).
"Don’t face the goal with your back, but move your body so you have a short way to the goal. Shape your body so you are facing the stands. I have to face the goal or I won’t be a threat," he revealed.
"I’ve realised that I need to limber up and strengthen my body trunk."
This last comment seems to suggest that Sir Alex is keen to develop him into more of a typical central player. Unfortunately, this would not be the best idea.
Kagawa is a nimble trequartista, not a box-to-box midfielder.
Manchester United must play to his strengths and allow him to operate in an advanced position, even if that means displacing Rooney from his current habitat.
Who knows, perhaps his vision and creativity may increase Robin van Persie's strike rate.
He will take time to settle, which can only be expected, but based on his rise from the lower leagues of Japan to playing for one of the biggest clubs on the planet, he certainly has the pedigree to succeed.
That £12 million may be a relatively cheap transfer fee by today's standards, but United owe it to Kagawa to give him the chance to do what he does best.
He may just prove to be the X-factor Real won't see coming.
What do you think the immediate future holds for Shinji Kagawa? How can United get the best out of him?
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