Over the last few months, Bleacher Report has produced a glut of features examining why a shift into the centre of the pitch would hugely benefit Manchester United’s Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa.
Perhaps, however, it would be better to look at this issue from a different angle. While a switch to his preferred central berth would surely help the player realise his potential at Old Trafford, I argue that placing faith in Kagawa and giving him a run in his favoured No. 10 role could inspire Manchester United and alleviate some of the pressure on David Moyes.
The knives have been out for Moyes since he took over from Alex Ferguson during the summer. The legendary Glaswegian was always going to leave huge shoes to fill behind him and the task of picking up Ferguson’s mantle is, inevitably, an unenviable task.
In their last six games, Manchester United have won only three times; they struggled to breakdown Crystal Palace at Old Trafford, would have had trouble beating Sunderland had David de Gea not made a remarkable save and conceded twice against Stoke before rallying to win 3-2. They were also taken apart by West Bromwich Albion at home and suffered an ignominious demolition at the hands of their local rivals and would-be title rivals Manchester City before a baying City of Manchester crowd.
Moyes has also had to contend with some unneeded publicity following the publication of Ferguson’s autobiography, had to endure an uncharacteristically muddled summer of transfer business and has publicly criticised his winger, Ashley Young, for diving.
On top of all of this, the suggestion that Ferguson jumped ship leaving an ailing and ageing squad behind refuses to disappear.
The Scot is in desperate need of a change of fortune and perhaps a change in direction could provide it.
In August I wrote that Moyes’ handling of Kagawa could well be one of the most crucial acts in the manager’s early tenure. Considering how uncertain the Scot’s start has been, the utilisation of Kagawa could become an even more pertinent and defining feature of Moyes’ reign.
As well as having a direct impact on the field of play, using Kagawa effectively as a No. 10 could also provide Moyes with an opportunity to prove himself above and beyond the ominous shadow of Sir Alex Ferguson.
In Ferguson’s final year in Manchester, his employment of Kagawa was arguably one blot in a triumphant season. The midfielder’s talent was on show only sporadically last term as he flitted in and out of the team, but he struggled to rack up the game time required to adapt completely to the Premier League. When he did play, he was too often stationed out in wide positions. After Ferguson’s retirement, the jury is still out one of his last high-profile signings.
Moyes is presented with the opportunity to make Kagawa his "own man," unlock the Japanese international’s Premier League potential and take the claim for his eventual explosion before a British public.
The first thing Moyes needs to do is to commit to playing him in a central berth. Naturally, this is easier said than done; Wayne Rooney’s continued existence at Old Trafford, not to mention his sublime early-season form means that he is irreplaceable and undroppable at the moment.
However, as Kagawa demonstrated in the Bundesliga, he is a player who was born to play as a No. 10 just behind a central striker.
Jurgen Klopp, who managed Kagawa at Dortmund, where he was one of the most lethal midfielders in the German league, is under no illusion as to the potential advantages of playing the Japanese star regularly as a No. 10.
He said in the Metro: "Shinji Kagawa is one of the best players in the world and he now plays 20 minutes at Manchester United—on the left wing!"
Klopp is acutely aware that, in a central role for Dortmund, Kagawa emerged as a goalscorer of some pedigree. He bagged 21 goals in 49 games during two remarkable years in the Bundesliga—statistics made all the more impressive when considering the fact that the youngster was new to Germany and even new to Europe when he began that tremendous run in front of goal.
Having been found so rarely in his preferred position last term, that prodigious eye for goal has not yet been truly unveiled at United.
Few in attendance, however, could ever forget his delicious display against Norwich in early March of this year. It was a fixture that allowed Kagawa to thoroughly demonstrate his class in front of goal.
That day he scored a hat-trick in a 4-0 victory as Old Trafford stood to acclaim a thoroughly magnificent individual showing. His superb anticipation, fine movement and astute positioning was on display as he managed three close-range finishes, further evidence of his clinical ability in front of net.
Will Shinji Kagawa ever be a major success in Manchester?
His teamwork, particularly his interaction with Rooney, with whom he swapped positions throughout the clash, was also admirable. He demonstrated the sensitivity and the prudence required to function effectively as a No. 10. Similarly, his technical ability is excellent and is surely of the levels required for an EPL playmaker.
Against Norwich he became the first Asian player to bag a hat-trick in the Premier League; were Moyes to trust Kagawa with a central berth, giving him licence to play in the No. 10 position, then the Japanese international would receive ample opportunity to demonstrate his goalscoring prowess much more regularly.
One ought not assume that performances such as that against Norwich would become the norm, but it’s a safe bet to believe that it wouldn’t be considered such a rarity.
His other qualities—his fine interaction, his ability to move the ball quickly, to make space for others, to pass effectively and trouble defenders with his movement—combine to craft a player primed to excel behind the centre-forward. Often for teams such as Manchester United and those others perennially occupying the top spots in the league, dominating possession and remaining tight at the back is not enough to guarantee a victory.
With Premier League defences being as drilled and as proficient as they are, the top sides occasionally require a player with the guile and technical mastery to pierce a defence and to unlock a stubborn back line. This can often be the difference between success and failure.
In Kagawa, United possess a player with the qualities to do just that, to infiltrate massed ranks of stoppers and to find a way to goal. This could be particularly effective when United’s fabled wide offensive, currently so blunt and inconsistent, is yielding little reward.
Bleacher Report’s own Max Towle once explored Moyes’ interesting relationship with offensive midfielders. Whilst at Everton, Moyes rarely invested in creative, intricate attacking midfielders—perhaps due to fiscal restraints, perhaps due to personal preference, perhaps due to the unpredictability that surrounds the role, he instead chose to employ bullish midfielders behind a frontman.
Tim Cahill and Marouane Fellaini both thrived under Moyes offering physicality and presence rather than finesse and guile.
This may suggest that Rooney, rather than Kagawa, is Moyes’ ideal fit for this role. However, I would argue that the presence of Leon Osman, Darron Gibson, Mikel Arteta and Steven Pienaar at Everton betrays Moyes’ penchant for a creative, passing game. Using Kagawa behind the striker as a playmaker would be an ideal step for the Scot to take in order to impose his preferred style upon the United team.
Perhaps one weakness, one which is preventing Moyes from placing as much faith in Kagawa as he would like, is the midfielder’s perceived fragility.
This has been forwarded as a potential reason why Ferguson opted not to place too much faith in the former Dortmund man. A year ago he sustained a knee injury that certainly set him back and if not derailed, then postponed, his complete immersion into United’s first XI. Kagawa clearly took time to adapt to the rhythm of his teammates and to rediscover his swagger.
As I have chronicled in previous articles, Kagawa only completed the 90 minutes on five occasions during his 20 league appearances last season. He was substituted in 60 percent of his league outings and was introduced as a substitute for a further 15 percent of his appearances.
Certainly, for Moyes to place faith in Kagawa and for him to confidently build Manchester United around the Japanese star’s prodigious skills, he will need to see more consistency. If he can do that, then maybe Kagawa can be the catalyst to herald a successful new era under Moyes.