The highlight of Shinji Kagawa’s disrupted season isn’t quite a star turn at the Manchester United Christmas party, although those of a more cynical persuasion may be forgiven for making the observation. Certainly the Japanese playmaker has contributed little in recent weeks after suffering a knee injury that has sidelined the former Borussia Dortmund star since United’s 3-2 Champions League home win against SC Braga on 23 October. Yet, 23-year-old Kagawa is set to return before the New Year, increasing Sir Alex Ferguson’s options, and in turn creating a selection predicament.
After three lengthy injuries in as many seasons many wish Kagawa better luck for the season’s remainder. After all, the Japanese has demonstrated glimpses of the form that brought 29 goals in 71 games for Dortmund over the past two seasons. Kagawa’s pace, creativity and ability to play between the lines of midfield and attack mark the Kobe-born player out as a potential Old Trafford star.
Indeed, a fine first month of the campaign offered plenty of hope that Kagawa would add much to United’s attack this season – the missing link between Ferguson’s plentiful striking resources and an Old Trafford tradition of deploying wingers.
This hasn’t quite proven to be the case, with Kagawa scoring two goals in just eight appearances before injury struck. In truth the player’s performances tailed off after a fine first month amid changing tactics and Wayne Rooney’s return to the side, although there is little doubt of the 37-cap international’s genuine quality.
Still, Sir Alex will be delighted with the midfielder’s return and the additional attacking option Kagawa brings to a side that has already found the net 43 times in the Premier League alone. Few managers can boast such plentiful resources in forward areas without the Japanese’s addition.
The question, of course, is quite where the player now fits into a United side that is scoring so freely. After all, Rooney has now formed a fine partnership with Robin van Persie, with the Scouser occupying Kagawa’s former deep-lying attacking role.
In this there are significant consequences in Kagawa’s reintegration into the side, which may prompt Sir Alex to move Rooney wide, deploy the Japanese international out of position, or change a system that is bringing goals, if not defensive stability.
It may be Kagawa that is the sacrifice. Kagawa can play wide, although most observers conclude that the playmaker’s creative impact is significantly impinged from the touchline, while he offers little genuine width.
Certainly, few supporters will countenance another stint for Rooney on the left wing, and there is little benefit to player or club should an expensive new acquisition be consigned to Ferguson’s bench.
Which leaves a potential change in formation, with Kagawa deployed ‘in the hole’ behind a front two of van Persie and Rooney in a narrow diamond formation. The system has been tried before this season, with mixed success.
There is a temptation for change though. After all, Ferguson has not built a reputation as a tinkerer without foundation. Still, with Antonio Valenicia out-of-form, Nani on the sidelines with injury and Ashley Young inconsistent this season, Ferguson has few reasons to resist his greatest seduction.
Yet, it is a decision Ferguson is set to make soon, with Kagawa beginning full training this week at Carrington. Although unlikely to make United’s squad for the upcoming trip to face Swansea City in Wales, the player could well make United’s bench before the year is out.
Still, there are plenty of fixtures ahead. United plays four times in nine days in what could be an influential period domestically – Ferguson’s side plays Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion at home, before travelling to Wigan Athletic on new year’s day. Then there is the FA Cup fixture with West Ham United on 5 January and the Champions League knock-out stages, beginning in February.
Ferguson’s potential selection dilemma underscores that the Scot is yet discover his side’s best formation or personnel this season. The 70-year-old manager has evolved between systems, deploying too many square pegs for comfort at times, while failing to strike a balance between attacking verve and defensive solidity. The former and not the latter has won out to date, with the Reds’ unchecked scoring coming at the price of defensive openness.
Kagawa will offer little change there – the former Cerezo Osaka rarely having been deployed in a more orthodox central midfield role at any of his former clubs.
However, as the season shakes out, United supporters may yet see the best Kagawa has to offer. At Dortmund, as the pivotal link between a trio of attackers, Kagawa developed into a player of real talent – helping guide DVB to successive Bundesliga titles.
United offers an international stage and profile unsurpassed, but only if the 23-year-old can force his way back into Ferguson’s side during the second half of the season. Kagawa has rarely failed in the past; few would will bet against him now, although Ferguson’s ability to reintegrate the playmaker into a winning side is key.