There is more than one way to win a football match, it is often said, although at Manchester United leading from an attacking front has so often been the club’s purpose. Not always in recent times though, with manager Sir Alex Ferguson turning to more pragmatic ideals when, on occasion, faced with more limited resources at his disposal.
Yet, whether from a quixotic viewpoint or otherwise, Ferguson can have few reasons to retrench into a defensive mindset this season, with United blessed by the most dangerous attacking line-up since the Reds won the European Cup in 2008.
Two games into the new campaign and Ferguson’s summer decision to revamp his attacking resources has already impacted on United’s forward play, even if his side’s performances have been a little underwhelming to date. There is surely far more to come from an attacking eight that promises creativity, goals and more than a little thrill.
Indeed, new signings Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie have each impressed. While Kagawa has offered fluid movement and subtle creativity, van Persie’s promise of goals came to fruition in spectacular fashion against Fulham at Old Trafford on Saturday.
Each may positively affect the title race this season as Ferguson seeks to wrestle silverware and domestic supremacy away from Manchester City. Closer to home van Persie, and Kagawa even more so, will affect Wayne Rooney’s role and place in United’s side this season.
Ferguson’s team is taking time to knit – not least because defensive injuries have disrupted both the Scot’s back-four and midfield. But the most interesting area of change has been in attack, where Ferguson has rotated his resources and implemented a new tactical system. Indeed, while fans – and probably even the manager – figure out the best attacking combinations in a more fluid 4-2-3-1 this season, it seems unlikely that Ferguson will ever fit all his attacking resources into the same side so plentiful have they become.
United’s two games in the campaign to date are the case in point, with only Kagawa – of Ferguson’s attacking octet – starting both games. van Persie began his time with United on the bench, as did Ashley Young, while Ferguson dropped Nani from the Reds squad altogether for Saturday’s victory over Fulham after a hugely disappointing performance on the opening weekend. It remains to be seen whether the Portuguese remains at the club beyond Friday’s transfer deadline.
Rooney has started one, and failed to finish the other, while Antonio Valencia has switched between defence and attack. Danny Welbeck was picked to start against Everton, but came off the bench in the other, while Javier Hernández and Dimitar Berbatov are yet to appear in the first team.
Constant amid the flux has been the Japanese, whose ability to float between the lines has been the highlight of two contradictory team performances to date. Deployed in the space between midfield and attack, Kagawa could yet become the pivot around whom Ferguson builds a title-challenging side. And if that is so, then it is Rooney who may find his place in the Reds’ attack under threat.
Already there are signs of a blossoming relationship between Kagawa and van Persie, with the former providing the link between central midfield and an attacking triumvirate, whomever Ferguson selects to fill the roles.
“I was pleased with both of them,” beamed Sir Alex after United beat Fulham 3-2 at Old Trafford on Saturday.
“It’s early doors and they’ll have a better understanding as time goes on. It’s normal for us to play one up front with one in behind, whether it’s Wayne who plays in that role or Danny Welbeck. Ashley Young can play there too, Ryan Giggs can… we’ve got options that way.”
It was Rooney who so often dropped deep behind Welbeck last season, with many supporters presuming van Persie would slot into the young Englishman’s place this season. Instead, the former Evertonian is now under the greater pressure, with Kagawa influential between the lines in defeat to Everton, and then scoring against the Cottagers at Old Trafford.
Kagawa’s team-mates appreciate the selflessness of the 23-year-old Japanese internationals play too. It points towards a more flexible attacking unit than the 4-5-1/4-4-2 that United’s manager deployed in defeat last season.
“I love playing with him – one and two touch, high-energy football. We’re on the same wavelength,” effused midfielder Tom Cleverley of Kagawa’s rapid influence.
“He’s brilliant. He has settled in really well. He links defence with attack. He gets on the half-turn and creates chances. I can’t speak highly enough of him.”
Cleverley has taken a deeper role this season than performed for Great Britain at the Olympics this summer, or indeed in England’s victory over Italy earlier this month. But it is a challenge that could yet offer Kagawa the platform upon which the Japanese playmaker’s skills will truly flourish.
Whether an ageing Paul Scholes, perennially inconsistent Anderson or ill Darren Fletcher can give enough support is moot. More likely, United will again rely on Michael Carrick’s experience once Ferguson has enough central defenders at his disposal to move the Geordie forward.
But it is the attacking third on which the manager’s focus has locked this summer after City claimed the Premier League title on goal difference last summer. Only silverware will decide whether the manager’s decision not to strengthen in central midfield is a strategic error, or an inspired gamble.
“We have been low on goals from midfield in recent seasons,” Ferguson wrote in his programme notes this weekend.
“There was a time when Bryan Robson would give you a dozen through the centre of the park and Paul Scholes in his heyday was good for 10 or so but lately we haven’t seen that kind of tally. I believe that Kagawa will put that right, which should ensure that we don’t lose any more titles on goal difference.
“He is very much an attacking player, nominally from midfield but perfectly capable of taking a front role. One thing for sure is that he will add a scoring dimension if he plays central midfield, as he showed last season for Borussia Dortmund.”
Yet, Kagawa’s best work is done in and around the ‘D’, with the former Dortmund star unlikely to drop deeper unless further injuries strike. Sunday’s trip to Southampton is likely to pair van Persie and Kagawa together again, with any two from four deployed in wide areas.
The trip south is also the first of between six and eight matches Rooney will miss for the Reds while he recovers from a deep gash to the right thigh that required surgery under general anaesthetic in Manchester on Saturday night.
Then again, given the form of Ferguson’s new acquisitions, the £27 million Englishman may no longer be guaranteed a start for United when he recovers from the surgeon’s knife.