Shinji Kagawa is not injured.
And if there were any questions regarding his fitness, they were put aside once and for all when he left two Ghana players in the dust, out-maneuvered a third and lashed the ball past the goalkeeper and inside the near post in a Tuesday international friendly against the Black Stars in Saitama, Japan.
It was a goal worthy of celebration, but Kagawa’s face showed only relief as he motioned for his teammates to prepare for the restart.
“I’ve still got it,” his expression said. “Still got it.”
You could forgive some self-doubt from the 24-year-old, but following the match—a 3-1 win for Japan, who have already qualified for the 2014 World Cup—he revealed only frustration, telling reporters to “ask David Moyes” why he had yet to be selected to play a single minute of Premier League football this season.
“It’s frustrating not playing, but to score a goal like that gives me confidence. Hopefully I can take that back to my club with me and things will improve,” he told reporters (via Manchester Evening News).
“It’s hard not playing regularly. Some days the frustration is worse than others. It comes in waves.”
As Moyes has settled in at Manchester United after replacing long-time manager Sir Alex Ferguson in the spring, Kagawa’s place in the squad has become increasingly cloudy.
An unused substitute against Swansea and Chelsea in United’s first two league matches this season, he didn’t even make the trip to Anfield for a Sept. 1 showdown with Liverpool—a 1-0 defeat in which his teammates struggled, and failed, to break down a stubborn opponent.
Moyes’ approach that afternoon was revealing, and a closer look at the Scot’s tactical preferences sheds some light on Kagawa’s place in his plans.
While the Japan international was acquired from Borussia Dortmund last year to operate in the middle or, more often as it turned out, on the left of a playmaking trio supporting a lone centre-forward in a 4-2-3-1, Moyes seems to favour a 4-4-2 formation in which the wingers are encouraged to get forward while the midfielders remain deep.
Sometimes he’ll have one of his strikers drop into a more withdrawn position for a 4-4-1-1, but players he fancies for these setups are essentially the same.
Against Liverpool, the Red Devils boss deployed Ryan Giggs and Ashley Young out wide while Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley sat in the middle. Against Chelsea, Danny Welbeck stayed mostly on the left while Wayne Rooney dropped in behind Robin Van Persie; Antonio Valencia patrolled the right flank and Carrick and Cleverley again ran the midfield.
What’s baffling about Moyes’ tactics is that he continues to leave a sizable hole in the middle of the attacking third—a bizarre decision given United’s frequent inability to break down their opponents. His side almost screams for a player of Shinji Kagawa’s capabilities, and yet Kagawa remains glued to the bench.
Of course, it’s important to remember that the team sheet is, first and foremost, Moyes’ prerogative. He didn’t acquire Kagawa—he owes him nothing. And he deserves the chance to set up his team in the manner he sees fit.
United passed that type of decision-making on to Moyes when they hired him, and there will no doubt continue to be a adjustment period.
Chelsea, incidentally, are going through something similar with Juan Mata. Manager Jose Mourinho has so far resisted including the two-time club Player of the Year in his starting lineups—the thinking being that, following a thigh injury, the Spaniard has yet to develop the defensive work rate and tactical nous possessed by Mourinho’s favourite players.
But Mourinho has a plethora of playmaking options; Moyes has very few. That is why it’s likely only a matter of time before Kagawa gets his chance at United.
And he knows it’s a chance he’ll have to take.
“I have to do my talking on the pitch,” he remarked to Manchester Evening News after the Ghana win. “When I get back to my club I have to wait for my chance in the Champions League and the Premier League. I’m sure my chance will come.”
In the meantime, a campaign to bring him back to Dortmund has been started by a section of the Bundesliga outfit’s supporters with the #FreeShinji hashtag on Twitter. They, more than anyone else, know what Kagawa can offer: precise passing, exceptional shooting accuracy and delicate close control.
And while those attributes are on the shelf for now, it surely won’t be long before they’re put to use at United.