Rumours abound that Shinji Kagawa will be leaving David Moyes' Manchester United in the summer, per Tony Dawber of the Mirror. Given his relative lack of playing time this season, it is not hard to imagine that Kagawa is considering his options.
Kagawa divides opinion at Old Trafford. There are those who believe him to be an immensely gifted player who has been prevented from expressing the best of himself by virtue of a lack of consistent opportunity. These opportunities are both positional and stylistic.
It may be oft-touted that he needs to play in the No. 10 role but in truth it is more complex than that. He also needs a team built to play the kind of football at which he excels—fast transitions, quick interplay and intelligent movement.
There are also those fans who believe he has not taken the opportunities presented to him, and that he is simply not cut out for United.
There are, of course, shades of grey in between, but in the interests of disclosure, I should say I am firmly in the former camp.
In the past few weeks, Kagawa's contribution has been telling. Against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns on 8 March, Kagawa's substitute appearance changed the dynamic of United's play.
Ostensibly playing off the left, he and Juan Mata were freed, by each other's presence, to operate a fluid, mobile attacking unit that went on to be effective in games against West Ham United and Aston Villa.
Against Villa, Kagawa was sublime. His cross for Wayne Rooney's opening goal was postage-stamp perfect. The through ball which lead to Leandro Bacuna's foul on Mata for the penalty was reminiscent of Lionel Messi's through ball to Neymar in the recent Clasico. Kagawa was the key creative force in two goals which brought United back from a 1-0 deficit at a time when confidence was low.
It is no coincidence that the Japanese playmaker has had his most impressive spell of the season with Robin van Persie out through injury. His most impressive previous outing was the 5-0 defeat of Bayer Leverkusen, another occasion on which van Persie was unavailable for selection.
This is not intended as any kind of criticism of van Persie, far from it. Rather it is to suggest that there is a stylistic difference in the football played when he is injured. The same may well be true if it were Rooney who were injured, as key to this whole picture is the notion that Kagawa flourishes when it is someone other than Rooney operating in the No. 10 role. Against Leverkusen that was Kagawa himself and against Albion, West Ham and Villa it was Mata.
When Sir Alex Ferguson bought Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund, it is perhaps reasonable to imagine he was looking use him behind Rooney in a fluid attacking unit. This goal, from the 2011 Community Shield, seemed to point the way to a new kind of highly technical attacking football at Old Trafford. Kagawa would have fitted in beautifully.
However, when the opportunity arose to purchase van Persie, Ferguson, rightly, leapt on it. Trophies, open-top bus parades and wonderful moments followed.
But it did lead to a tactical problem where Kagawa was concerned. Kagawa was played on the left, and Rooney was played in a deeper role, and it suited neither of them (although it, of course, suited van Persie fine).
However, in recent weeks, Kagawa has shown his immense value to the side. Following the game against West Bromwich Albion, David Moyes said he would be playing Kagawa more often.
Moyes on Kagawa: "We have competition for places with Adnan and Mata, but Shinji will play a lot more from now until the end of the season."— Manchester United (@ManUtd) March 8, 2014
So far he has been good to his word. He should continue to do this between now and the end of the season, and he should mount the kind of charm offensive he did with Rooney in his first months in charge. Kagawa is too good to be consigned to the Juan Sebastian Veron school of "what might have been."
When the team has been built around Kagawa and Mata, it has been beautiful to watch. It might just be effective enough to keep David Moyes in a job.