Since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid following the 2008/09 season, the key player to Manchester United's attack has undoubtedly been Wayne Rooney. In Wazza's first season as the clear lead man, his role was that of a lead striker -- whether that be as the lone frontman in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 system or just ahead of Dimitar Berbatov in a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1ish system. Rooney scored 34 goals that season in all competitions and he was named the 2010 PFA Player of the Year. However, the United talisman picked up an ankle knock in late March of 2010 during the first leg of a UEFA Champions League quarter-final tie versus Bayern Munich and after that, he suffered from a severe dip in form for nearly a calendar year.
Rooney rediscovered his world-class form again in time for the run-in of the 2010-11 season -- but this time as a creator in support of lead striker Javier Hernandez (Chicharito). Rooney has since continued that creative and deeper role-- in the space between the opposition's defensive and midfield lines -- through the conclusion of this past season. However, despite impressively bagging 34 goals again this campaign in all competitions, his influence as a creator faded towards season's end. His first-touch was poor at times, his distribution became somewhat erratic, and his decision-making was disappointing in moments. It became increasingly frustrating these past few months to witness Wazza intelligently find space but then sputter another promising attacking move.
Even though Rooney has expressed in the past his preference for a 'number 10' sort of role in attack, it's possible that United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is considering moving his most important player back into a 'number 9' role. However, even though this would mean he's the lead striker again, his natural movement would still have him dropping deep at times in order to link attacking moves and create space for others in a modern 'false 9' role'. United's announcement yesterday that Shinji Kagawa will joining the club, and their recent failed pursuit of Eden Hazard, hints strongly at this possibility.
There has apparently has been rumblings in Tokyo this past week that Fergie told Kagawa, should he join United (which he has!), that he would be featured in behind Wayne Rooney in a 4-2-3-1 system. This is the same role that the Japanese international thrived in for German champions Borussia Dortmund in behind striker Robert Lewandowski. This is also a similar role to the one that Rooney has featured at United for the past season-and-a-half.
Since Rooney's move to a supportive role in behind a lead striker -- usually either Chicharito or Danny Welbeck -- he would often drop deep between the lines from an initial striker's position in order to receive the ball with his back to goal. From here, if he couldn't turn and provide a penetrative through ball in behind the defense, Wazza would typically look to spray a long diagonal ball out to the flanks for a winger or a marauding full-back. He'd even look to carry the ball forward at times with a driving run towards goal. He was inconsistent in his ability to split the defense with a throughball as was he with his dribbling, but he was generally superb with those long balls out wide. In addition, particularly during 2010/11 season's run-in, he was incredibly industrious when he would constantly drop deep in order to mark a midfielder when United were out of possession.
If Fergie is indeed looking to use Kagawa in a supportive role in behind Rooney, perhaps due to his own frustration at the talisman's lackluster performance in 'number 10' role during these past few months, then that's an intriguing thought. When Dortmund were out of possession, Kagawa didn't drop off into midfield much -- as Rooney often does -- because manager Jurgen Klopp drills his side to intensively press high up the pitch with cohesion. Instead, the Japanese attacker would close down an opposing defender. From here, if Dortmund were able to win the ball back in their attacking half of the pitch, it was often Kagawa that ignited quick and lethal attacks with his direct playing style.
When building attacking moves, Kagawa tends to start in slightly deeper positions in comparison to Rooney. Because of this, Kagawa typically would have more time and space so that he could turn with the ball when he received. In addition, his off-the-ball movement is tremendous and he has a knack for finding pockets of space just in behind the defender who is supposed to be patrolling that area -- whether that be a defender or a midfielder. If you haven't had a chance to watch Kagawa play, and if you happen to be familiar with Juan Mata's movement when he's deployed as a 'number 10' for Chelsea, then envision the Spaniard's off-the-ball movement and you have a decent idea on how our new signing does it. As previously mentioned, Kagawa is direct when he gets the ball (that differs from Mata). He's quick and has decent pace, he's decisive, he's tricky enough to run at and beat defenders, and he has the technical ability to combine for quick 'one-twos'.
When Rooney was deployed in a 'false 9' role in 2009/10, he would often drop deep to pick up the ball and if a center-back was dragged out of position by following him, he was able create a larger gap for midfield runners to exploit. From here, he could combine with a deeper central player and one of them could lay off a pass into space for a player making a driving run from a wide position. Or, he could combine with a wide attacker and one of them could lay off a pass into space for a player making a driving from a deeper central position -- this is a run that Kagawa excels at. This is the sort of prospective combination -- Rooney dropping deep while Kagawa makes a run from a somewhat deeper position into the vacated space in behind -- that should have United fans excited.
If these supposed talks of a 4-2-3-1 with Kagawa in behind Rooney are true, then there's potential for incredible fluidity and interchanging between the likes of those two and with Nani and Ashley Young. Both wingers are fairly comfortable coming inside and operating in that space. If Antonio Valencia is deployed on the right in this scenario, then he can stretch the attacking space by hugging the touchline while wider gaps could potentially be created by the interchanging movement of Rooney, Kagawa, and either Young or Nani. They could even be supported by the driving runs of Tom Cleverley from an even deeper position in central-midfield or a well-timed late-arriving run from Paul Scholes. This could be dynamic.
Again though, Kagawa in support of Rooney in a 4-2-3-1 is pure speculation and I have no idea about the validity of the reports out of Tokyo that Fergie actually told Kagawa, or his representatives, this. But it certainly appears to be a sensible possibility. Rooney struggled somewhat to create in a 'number 10' role at season's end but he was still bagging goals. Kagawa excelled in a similar role for Dortmund and theoretically, he seems to be a good match for a 'false 9' Rooney. Combine that Young and Nani are able to interchange and it seems highly likely that Fergie -- a man much smarter than me obviously -- is contemplating this change to spark United's attack.
What of Danny Welbeck? Remember that he's a versatile player that could also lead the attack in front of either Kagawa or Rooney while he can also play out wide. What of Chicharito? He too has worked well with a support player just in behind him (Rooney) so it might work with Kagawa as well. The Mexican international could also play the role of 'super-sub' a bit more next season. There's also the obvious need for squad rotation so everyone should have opportunity to feature frequently. It's difficult to guess whether Kagawa will make our best XI any stronger but he certainly brings a skillset range that currently doesn't exist at United. He may also provide a boost for our current talisman -- perhaps enhanced by a role change.