5th June 2012, Manchester United secured the signing of Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa from Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund for an estimated £12 million (rising to £17 million).
Upon his signing, football analysts agreed that the Kagawa’s arrival was a signal of a change in approach for Manchester United; Kagawa is a prominent attacking midfielder who operates behind the striker in the space between the opposition’s midfield and defence.
His style is reminiscent of “Number 10s” of old where positioning, flair and the ability to create in and around the box was the key attributes. The expectations placed upon him were heavy, but fair at the same time due to his natural ability, but the question needs to be asked, has he fulfilled those expectations so far?
What was expected of him?
United were a team that played with a lot of width last season, and in certain aspects became far too predictable towards the latter end of the season. Sir Alex Ferguson saw this is a sign to change his approach play in order to make his team a more potent attacking force; Kagawa’s arrival gave United the ability to play through the central zones more effectively.
United lacked a player to link up with Wayne Rooney last season which placed more pressure on him to operate in deeper roles to get involved in the build-up phases, but with Kagawa, United have the opportunity to add variety to their attack.
On his Premier League debut against Everton at Goodison Park, Kagawa was involved in most of United’s attack whether it be directly on the ball or indirectly with his positioning opening space for others. He often received the ball outside the box and played the ball into tight areas, if the pass was not on then looked for United’s wide players in order to keep possession high up the pitch, something he was used to doing when playing for Dortmund.
In total he created 4 chances for United.
Against Fulham however, United struggled in periods to get a foothold in the game, therefore Kagawa was forced to drop deeper in order to build through the middle of the pitch. This was a problem for United and Kagawa, by dropping deep; it isolates the United striker and decreases the options available as an outlet to counter attack.
However in the attacking third this is a common problem for Kagawa as the season continues.
The problem Kagawa has had during his beginning spell as a United player is that too often; Kagawa has played too safe when in possession and this taken away the penetrative aspects on his normal game. This in turn decreases the chances that United have to create chances against stern defences and puts more pressure on others to make up for Kagawa’s shortcomings.
Although Kagawa’s stats show his effectiveness at keeping possession, upon further analysis it shows that he often plays with his back to goal and lacks the penetration that is expected for a player of his ilk.
Kagawa averages 90.1% successful passes per game, however has only made 7 key passes so far this season (1.2 per game). For a player that is expected to increase the penetrative aspects of the team through the middle, it doesn’t make for good reading compared to Santi Cazorla who operates in a similar position. Cazorla has a 90.8% pass success rate but has already made 26 key passes this season (3.7 per game).
When Kagawa played against Southampton at St. Mary’s stadium, he showed he can be an outlet for his team. The areas where he received the ball was within the width of the box but in spaces where he could turn and run at the heart of the opposition. By receiving the ball in this area, it caused Southampton problems because they didn’t know whether to press him on his first touch, or to drop deep and allow him to turn and keep their shape.
This was the influence on the team that United and their fans expected on a regular basis.
However a problem has persisted when Kagawa has played, and this was shown in United’s home defeat to Tottenham. Often when Kagawa has received the ball in dangerous areas, he looks to play backwards rather then turning or spreading the play either side of him.
Although this allows the likes of Scholes and Carrick to face the play, it stops United moving forward and playing in dangerous areas. The lack of forward passes from Kagawa stops him combining with United’s strikers.
Relationship with Strikers
Kagawa had a brilliant relationship with Dortmund striker Robert Lewandowski and Lucas Barrios prior to him. The quality of Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie was a mouth-watering prospect for United fans, and the thought of Kagawa being given the opportunity to operate behind one or both was a major fear factor for opposing teams.
However Kagawa’s cohesion with each striker has contrasted massively, when playing alongside Rooney, Kagawa and looked far more involved and dangerous; however when operating behind Van Persie, Kagawa has looked isolated and has often lacked involvement in the attacking third.
Kagawa and Rooney
Kagawa hasn’t had the chance to play alongside Rooney often this season due to Van Persie’s involvement and Rooney’s injury. However when Rooney was playing as the lead striker with Kagawa as the “Number 10”, both interchanged and combined very well, although they found it difficult to break down a resilient Everton side, both Rooney and Kagawa were at the forefront of every United attack and showed signings of developing a promising relationship.
Kagawa and Van Persie
A big reason for Kagawa and Rooney’s successful cohesion was due to them operating in similar spaces, thus allowing them to find themselves much easier. The difference with Van Persie is that often Kagawa goes towards the ball and at the same time Van Persie is looking for the penetrative run away from the ball.
As the distance between the two players increased, the likeliness of them finding each other becomes less. This was shown against Fulham when Van Persie and Kagawa only found each other 8 times in total the whole match.
What Must United Do to Get the Best out Of Kagawa?
In order for Kagawa to improve, United must start being more effective in possession in the middle third. Players such as Carrick and Scholes are good at ball retention and circulation but have failed to find Kagawa in dangerous positions so far this season.
When the ball is in wider positions on the left hand side, too many times this season passes have been forced into the box when Kagawa has been free on the edge of the area. In general United haven’t looked effective in possession, and Kagawa is partly to blame for this.
What Must Kagawa do to Improve?
Kagawa firstly must become available in more dangerous areas and accommodate himself to United’s midfield. Too many times this season he has left himself isolated and unable to pick the ball in the transitional phases of United’s counter attacks.
Kagawa has to be more risky in his play when on the ball, the lack of takes ons so far this season has also been a cause for concern, and he has only had 3 dribbles successful so far. His ability to take on a player is a major asset to his game due to being able to commit defenders and play into the space left behind.
When in possession, Kagawa must look to turn on the ball and play into space, and more importantly operate closer to Van Persie when playing. Kagawa’s own adaptability will decide whether he becomes a success at United. What will be more interesting is how Ferguson will accommodate Kagawa, Rooney and Van Persie due to Kagawa not being the most versatile of players.
However expect Kagawa to continue to improve and become a major success for United this season and the coming years.
*Thanks to FourFourTwo Stats Zone and WhoScored.com for the data and images provided.
Written by Zaheer Shah
Follow him on Twitter @ZazooShah
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