Is Kagawa’s number up?

It looks like Shinji Kagawa will be spending another season at Manchester United, but it is not entirely clear where he will be playing – if he even manages to get off the bench… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/08/14/post47771/)

Football Channel,  July 29th, 2014

Louis Van Gaal’s arrival at Manchester United has thus far been a huge success. The Dutchman has successfully implemented a new formation, impressed players and fans alike with his no-nonsense approach, and even managed to hold the majority of the notoriously difficult-to-please English media in his thrall.

In contrast to David Moyes – who, while a decent Premier League manager, ultimately failed to adapt to life at the very top of the game – the former Holland coach has achieved success everywhere he’s been; and he knows it. That gives him a presence and the aura that is needed to stand a chance at one of the world’s biggest clubs.

That is not currently the case with Shinji Kagawa, whose future at United has again been the matter of some debate. The past 12 months have been hugely forgettable for the former Cerezo Osaka star, and his triumphant spell with Borussia Dortmund is becoming an increasingly hazy memory.

His first season in Manchester didn’t go badly, but instead of building on that steady start and establishing himself as the man around which the team’s attacks were built the 25-year-old is now very much considered as a squad player at United.

It is still unclear whether Van Gaal envisages a regular role for Kagawa at Old Trafford, and rumours of a transfer overseas have again been doing the rounds – most recent suggestions linking him with the reigning La Liga champions Atletico Madrid.

Van Gaal has spoken directly about Kagawa, although his comments were a little ambiguous and have been interpreted in different ways. Talking after the draw and penalty win over Inter Milan on July 30th the 63-year-old made it clear that he did not initially see Kagawa as a no.10, and instead planned to try him as a deep-lying midfielder.

“I know him from Borussia Dortmund and he played in the no.10 position,” he was quoted as saying on manutd.com. “I wanted to try him in the no.6 or no.8 position in our system in the first two matches, and then I also gave him a chance at no.10 because he wanted to play in that position. He did it much better than in the two matches before.”

Jonathan Wilson, the leading expert on football tactics in England, perceived this as positive for Kagawa, and suggested that, “given his energy and understanding of the game, there is no reason Kagawa should not function well [as a central midfielder].

Nissan Stadium, July 2013

“The fact [Van Gaal] is looking at him in an array of positions suggests the new manager sees a future for him. Kagawa is, after all, quick, hard-working and tactically intelligent. He should be the ideal Van Gaal player.”

I have to admit that my reaction was not quite so positive though. I read Van Gaal’s comments as being along the lines of: ‘He played better as a no.10 but I want to play him as a no.6 or no.8. Therefore he probably won’t play much.’

Rob Dawson of the Manchester Evening News has been following United at close quarters throughout their pre-season preparations and likewise doesn’t envisage Kagawa being given a starting berth any time soon.

“It’s going to be difficult for him to play much because Van Gaal looks like he’s going to play Mata behind Van Persie and Rooney,” he told me after United’s final game of their American tour, the 3-1 win over Liverpool in which Kagawa played the last 20 minutes.

“On the other side, at least [Van Gaal] is incorporating a No.10 into his system,” Dawson continued, “so when he does get a chance, it should be in his best position.”

Dawson, unlike Wilson, isn’t convinced that Kagawa is capable of playing a more traditional central midfield role though, and thinks that the high caliber of creative players at the club – and potential arrival of more – could see Japan’s No.10 heading for pastures new in the not-too-distant future.

“I’m not sure he’s cut out to play in a two in midfield. I think if United get a reasonable offer they’ll let him leave,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he left. Van Gaal has said the squad has too many no.10s and Mata is going to be his first choice.”

While several players appeared to hold the power when it came to their futures under Moyes – Wayne Rooney negotiated a generous new deal, for instance, while Nemanja Vidic opted to leave the club – Van Gaal is very much in charge now. If he wants a player they’ll be hanging around and playing when and where he tells them to; if he doesn’t want them they’ll more likely than not be making their way through the exit door.

It looks like Kagawa will be sticking around for now, but just how many and what kinds of opportunities he will get remains to be seen.


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