One of the great things about having Louis van Gaal working in the Premier League is that English football at last has a manager who will openly discuss tactics. In a world in which any reference to tactics in a post-match press conference has tended to bring heavy sighs, that has already come as a refreshing change. Perhaps the most significant aspect of what Van Gaal has said so far is the hint that he foresees a future for Shinji Kagawa at Old Trafford.
The issue of Kagawa has been a vexed one for Manchester United. On the one hand, he is clearly technically gifted and industrious and has shown flickers of being capable of imposing himself on games. On the other hand, neither Sir Alex Ferguson nor David Moyes ever quite seemed able to work out where best to use him.
The tendency, from both managers, was to use the Japan international on the left side of midfield, following the traditional British wisdom that pushes talent to the flank. Perhaps in the days of heavy pitches, when the subtler ballplayers would get bogged down in the mud of midwinter, it made sense to pack the middle with stamina and let the talent try to find a footing on the firmer turf of the touchlines, but it’s been at least 20 years since that was a problem in the Premier League.
Besides which, at Borussia Dortmund, Kagawa helped lead the midfield press. According to Whoscored.com, he averaged 1.2 tackles and 0.5 interceptions per Bundesliga game in his final season at Dortmund. Those figures have remained relatively consistent at United (0.9 tackles and 0.6 interceptions per game in the Premier League in 2012-13 and 1.0 tackle and 1.0 interception per game in 2013-14): He may not be the most physically robust of players, but Kagawa can win the ball back.
What has changed at United is the lack of influence Kagawa has been able to exert—although in part that is down to his starting position. At a press conference before the 2013 Champions League final, Jurgen Klopp, Kagawa’s manager at Dortmund, said his “heart breaks” to see him playing on the flank rather than operating as a No. 10 as he did at Dortmund.
Part of the problem, and it is something Van Gaal has alluded to, is that United have an unbalanced squad, with four players who would ideally operate as a No. 10: Kagawa, Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj. That initially led to suggestions that Kagawa may be sold, with Dortmund seemingly keen to take him back, per The Independent, but Van Gaal’s recent comments suggests there could be a role for him.
Van Gaal is a tactical chameleon, always willing to change according to circumstance, but a consistent strand of his thinking has been the use of three central midfielders, whether in a 4-3-3-cum-4-2-3-1 or in a 5-3-2. The former option leaves Kagawa in much the same position as he has been up until now at United, competing with three others for the slot behind Robin van Persie—although Van Gaal is probably more willing to demand that Rooney should play wide than Moyes was.
The second option, though, with the security of an extra central defender, is intriguing. “I wanted to try him in the No. 6 or No. 8 position in our system in the first two matches, and then I also gave him a chance at No. 10 because he wanted to play in that position,” Van Gaal said after bringing Kagawa off the bench in the draw against Inter Milan on Tuesday.
He had used him deeper in the previous two games on tour, and given his energy and understanding of the game, there is no reason Kagawa should not function well there. In fact, if Van Gaal used a back four, Kagawa could probably play as one of the two flanking central midfielders, provided the central player didn’t operate too far forward.
Rumours persist that Kagawa will be offloaded as Van Gaal reshapes the squad, but the fact he is looking at him in an array of positions suggests the new manager sees a future for him. Kagawa is, after all, quick, hard-working and tactically intelligent. He should be the ideal Van Gaal player.
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