There were a number of United fans last season who were frustrated that they hadn’t seen more of the Japanese creator, an irritation that has spread and become more vocal this season as United suffered an indifferent start under David Moyes.
Is there, then, any way that United could use Kagawa in a central role?
It’s worth remembering just what a key figure Kagawa was for Dortmund. Playing as the central attacking midfielder in their dynamic 4-2-3-1, he scored 13 goals and notched eight assists in 29 starts and two substitute appearances as they won the Bundesliga in 2011-12, while registering 1.8 key passes per game.
Last season, in 17 starts and three substitute appearances, he scored six and set up three goals, while registering one key pass per game. This season he has been even less effective, starting only three of 11 league games so far and coming off the bench once. In those four appearances, Kagawa hasn’t managed a goal or an assist, while again averaging one key pass per game.
There is little in his stats to demand a place in the team, beyond the thought that he might improve if he was played in his more natural position through the middle. That then raises the intriguing question of just why Sir Alex Ferguson signed him; he presumably didn’t intend to consign him to the left.
In Kagawa’s first game, in fact, the opening match of last season, a 1-0 defeat at Everton, he was played centrally, operating behind Wayne Rooney in a 4-2-3-1. He then played behind Van Persie in his second appearance, against Fulham and in his third game, against Southampton.
Ferguson presumably intended Kagawa to provide competition for Rooney and Van Persie but that he wasn’t hugely impressed by the way he played in those latter two games was made clear by the fact he was taken off midway through the second half of both. He still played centrally on and off until a 1-0 win over Sunderland at the end of March.
Since then, he has always been used on one flank or the other. In that final season at Dortmund, Kagawa made 1.2 tackles and 0.5 interceptions per game (all stats from WhoScored.com), which rather gives the lie to the notion that he is some sort of frail creator who must be kept away from the hurly-burly of an English midfield.
Much is made of Wayne Rooney’s willingness to track back, the way that, at his best, he functions as a destroyer at the front of the midfield, yet in the last four years he has never averaged more than 0.7 tackles per game over a season. That suggests Kagawa could, counter-intuitively, be the dynamic midfielder United need, a player with energy and creativity to complement the passing of Michael Carrick and the aggression of Marouane Fellaini.
There is a sense that Kagawa is a little over-precise in his play, that he slows the game down too much to be used centrally in a 4-2-3-1 (although why that wasn’t an issue at Dortmund has never been explained), but his ball-winning capacity means he could have a place in a 4-3-3.
That would mean leaving out one of Rooney or Van Persie, or using Rooney wide—a role in which he has excelled in the past, and which would allow Moyes to leave out one of his misfiring wingers. It’s understandable that Moyes, feeling his way into the job, should seek to be conservative and retain the basic 4-2-3-1 shape used last season, but if Kagawa is to have a future at the club, 4-3-3 may be his only hope.