Manchester United will soon welcome the return of Shinji Kagawa from injury. However, it's uncertain what the playmaker's role will be and how much he might be involved.
Shinji Kagawa was (and still is) an exciting summer signing from Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund and he was the type of playmaker that Sir Alex Ferguson never had at his disposal during the manager's 26+ year reign at Old Trafford. For the latter half of last season -- perhaps for even longer -- Wayne Rooney's form dipped massively as a playmaker, despite the numerous goals he was still bagging. The Englishman's poor first-touch, questionable decision-making, and a lack of interest in dropping back in order to help prevent United from being overrun in the midfield zone -- it's the latter that is arguably his greatest strength as a No.10 -- perhaps convinced Ferguson to search for another viable option.
When the Kagawa signing was announced early in the summer, the speculation was Rooney might push up higher into a No.9 sort of role while the Japanese international would take over the playmaker's role in behind. When world-class striker Robin van Persie was signed in August though, and when Rooney showed up in August overweight, many wondered what the role of the latter would be. Some even questioned his future at Manchester United.
RvP was certainly going to be the first-choice No. 9, therefore, would one of Rooney or Kagawa be forced in a role out wide to the left? If so, how might each handle being asked to play a role that is not their preferred one? However you might want to describe it -- whether it's man-management, a handling of egos, or perhaps something else -- the gaffer had a delicate situation to handle. Kagawa must have certainly been promised a fair chance to compete for first-choice as a central-playmaker while the sometimes temperamental Rooney had been United's talisman for the past three seasons.
In the opener at Everton, the team as a whole was dreadful, but Kagawa was the one shining United light that night at Goodison Park. His tremendous understanding of space and his ability to provide a defense-splitting through-ball was on full display. Soon after though, the form of the Japanese attacker dipped. However, one could certainly question if United had been utilizing him correctly when they put him in a shuttling role in a diamond midfield -- a role which he's never played during his time in Europe or for Japan. Even when he was deployed just in behind a lead striker, the rest of the United players seemed to have difficulties playing him the same sort of balls that he enjoyed at Dortmund. In October, Kagawa went down with an injury and he hasn't been seen since.
During this time away, Rooney recovered from his own early-season injury and since his return, he's been in fine form. RvP has led the attack wonderfully as the lead striker while Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) has contributed as well with timely goals. Rooney, in a deeper and playmaker's role, has seemed invigorated for the past few months and he's once again displaying the industry that makes him an arguably world-class player at times. Rooney's first-touch and ability to operate in tight spaces has never been elite but it does seem to noticeably improve when he's in a hard-working and perhaps, interested, mood. When he drops deep into midfield to receive, the long diagonal balls he sprays out wide to the wingers are a delight to watch as well. At the moment, Rooney is putting in some fine shifts as United's No.10.
Now it's Kagawa's time to soon return. What will his role be? Well, as previously mentioned, RvP is settled in as the No.9 with Chicharito as a fine alternative while Rooney deserves his place as the first-choice No.10 right now. Out wide to the left, Ashley Young has provided some solid performances as of late in 'big games' versus Chelsea and Manchester City. With Nani unavailable at the moment, though, due to injury (and perhaps longer or permanently due to his speculated discontent at United), and with the upcoming congested fixture list during the holiday season, Kagawa should find opportunities to settle back into the team. It could come deputising for Rooney when he's given a rest or it could come out wide in a narrow-attacking role (i.e drifting inside into the space between the lines like Juan Mata does for Chelsea or like David Silva does for City).
By all accounts, Kagawa is an ambitious and strong-willed 23-year-old and this reportedly has impressed Ferguson. However, he's also settling into a new country where he doesn't speak the language well. When you also consider that he's had also a two-month layoff due to his recent injury, it's probably prudent for supporters, the manager, and Kagawa himself to display some patience as he makes his return to a league that he's still not familiar with.
There's a bit uncertainly as to what Kagawa's role will be when he returns but there's little mystery in regards to the talent he possesses and the unique skill-set (relative to the rest of the United squad) that he offers. At Dortmund, Kagawa played slightly higher than Rooney as a No.10. His manager there, Jurgen Klopp, gave him instructions to press the opposition's center-backs along with lead striker Robert Lewandowski. The Japanese attacker rarely dropped into midfield to help out defensively and this was by design.
When possession was won -- and for Klopp, this was preferred to be high up the pitch rather than deep in Dortmund's defending half -- direct passes were played forward and Kagawa was brilliant in peeling off the opposition's deep-lying central-midfielders in order to find space between the lines so that he could receive in dangerous attacking zones. From here, the Dortmund front four were superb in collectively creating chances at speed and with precision. Kagawa, in particular, was tremendous with his touch and confidence in tight spaces and this helped him play some rapid combinations during attacking moves.
United's midfielders and defenders will need to learn the passes that Kagawa prefers to have played into him while he'll hopefully develop an understanding with his fellow United attackers as well. This could take some time in a proactive approach -- which is the majority of the time for the Red Devils, especially in the Premier League -- but Kagawa could possibly thrive instantly in a reactive approach. Dortmund were rapid in their transitions and United have been impressive as of late on the break versus the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, and City. A counterattacking 4-4-1-1 has seemingly become Ferguson's 'big game' system this season -- Kagawa is a fantastic fit for it.