How do you solve a problem like Shinji Kagawa?

January 11, 2013 in Premier League by Farhat Raza

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Six months into his Old Trafford career, Shinji Kagawa is yet to truly arrive at Manchester United. The Japanese play-maker has struggled to find himself at Old Trafford amidst sky high expectations and the shadow Robin van Persie is casting over not just United, but the entire Premier League.

In some ways, van Persie’s fine form is perhaps for the best, for it seems like Kagawa will need some time. This is no unusual thing, many players before him have taken a season or so to settle before consistently showing their best form. However, the concern for United fans at the moment is that this is very much the hope rather than the expectation.

Kagawa enjoyed a stellar spell in Germany, scoring 17 times and assisting 13 goals as Dortmund claimed a double last season. It feels as though Kagawa left that form behind at the luggage belt. A six-week lay off will not have helped but Kagawa’s poor performance at West Ham in the FA Cup was simply not good enough. Playing in his favoured position and role, Kagawa was far too quiet, too safe and lacking in conviction. Of course any player can have a bad game and Kagawa should be right back on the horse on Sunday in one of United’s biggest games of the season.

The question most observers seem to be pondering over is how to best fit Kagawa into a line-up which features both van Persie and Rooney ahead of him. As the cliche goes, it’s a good problem to have. The most popular solution seems to position Kagawa and Rooney in interchanging roles behind van Persie, with one dropping into the #10 position and the other playing as an inside forward from the left side.

Whilst it sounds about right on paper, in practical terms it’s not so surprising that Ferguson is yet to try such a formation. For one, Ferguson commands that his side play with natural width, something which Kagawa nor Rooney seem likely to offer. Secondly, both Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, and even Nani, offer a high work rate working up and down the flank helping their full-back. Kagawa, a constant and firm presser of the ball higher up the pitch, is unlikely to be as enthusiastic running backwards. United’s wide players are often charged with a high work rate simply because their two-man midfield is often immobile and overwhelmed.

The reality is that Kagawa’s best performances for United to date, notably a couple of weekends ago against West Brom and on the first Monday of the season at Everton, came in the #10 role when given the licence to roam and create as he sees fit. A long-term future for Kagawa in such a role soon hits the stumbling block of Wayne Rooney, who is also best suited to such a role. Therefore it seems to me that United will struggle to get the best out of both Rooney and Kagawa in the same team with Robin van Persie leading the line - one will have to be sacrificed. Most times, a luxury of riches is no bad thing and United fans should feel thrilled they have such depth in attacking positions. For now, Ferguson will have to juggle his side and the fans their expectations. Going forwards, if Manchester United do eventually strengthen their central midfield with harder working and tackling players, Kagawa and Rooney may well be able to play together alongside each other, not tasked with going backwards but doing their best work on the front foot.

Until then, however, Kagawa’s initial hype will have to put on hold. With Rooney on the sidelines this weekend, perhaps Kagawa can assume the free role once more. A star performance against Dortmund’s bitter rivals Schalke was Kagawa’s first signpost in Germany, so United fans will hope he can begin to write a similar story on Sunday afternoon.

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