I'm still trying to catch my breath from the sensational Confederations Cup thriller that was Japan's 3-4 defeat by Italy. In this rollercoaster of a football match, it was Manchester United's Shinji Kagawa that was named man of the match.
As is typical for Japan, the United playmaker was deployed on the left-side of attack in their 4-2-3-1. In this system, as you're perhaps aware, Kagawa operates as interiore -- a nominal wide attacker that drifts around laterally in the space between the opposition's defensive and midfield lines -- rather than as a traditional winger that stays near the touchline. While the 24-year-old certainly prefers to be deployed in the central No.10 role, he does this to accommodate CSKA Moscow's less versatile and less mobile Keisuke Honda.
In Japan's two matches thus far in this tournament, we've seen both the good and bad when a side deploys an interiore. In our Kagawa review from his side's Confederations Cup opener against Brazil, a major concern of using a player in this role was discussed:
'There is one major inherent weakness to deploying an interiore: because they constantly drift into central ares, or even onto the other side of the pitch at times, the space on the flank that they vacate can be badly exposed by an opposing attack-minded full-back. In Brazil's case, they deployed the world's most dangerous attacking right-back in Dani Alves against Kagawa. This left Japan exposed.'
This was further compounded by the Blue Samurai losing both the possession and territory battles against the Selecao, therefore, the vulnerabilities of an interiore were exposed more than the virtues of the role were displayed. Against Italy, though, Japan pressed from the start and pinned their opponents back for much of the first-half. As a result, they were in much more control than they were against Brazil and Kagawa was able to exhibit his playmaking talents.
From the start, the United attacking-midfielder stamped his authority on the match. In the 5th minute, he hit a delicious left-footed in-swinging cross from near the left touchline for Ryoichi Maeda -- the Japan striker, though, headed the ball straight at goalkeeper Gigi Buffon. In the 16th minute, Kagawa collected the ball from near the center-circle and carried it past Andrea Pirlo prior to unleashing a thunderous 30-yard left-footed strike that the Italian 'keeper did well to save. By this point in the match, Japan were completely dominant as evident by their 29 attacking-third passes in comparison to Italy's four at that time -- and everything in their attack was going through Kagawa. In the 33rd minute, he put Japan up 2-nil when he beautifully volleyed home a bouncing ball in the box after an eventual scramble resulted from a short corner (Here's a GIF of that goal). By half-time, Japan were in command and it was the United man that had more touches on the ball than any other player (52), more pass attempts (40), two chances created, and all two shots of his on target. He played had played a blinder of a first-half.
Italy grew into the match late in the first-half and they were drastically improved in the second-half. The match became incredibly open and despite Japan losing their grip on the match, Kagawa was still influential, although not quite to the extent that he was in the first-half. When the match ended, he ended up with 103 total touches (the most in the match), three chances created, 80 pass attempts (the most in the match) at an 85% success rate, and five total shot attempts.
Christian Maggio, who has played as a right-wing-back for Napoli these past few years in their 3-4-2-1 system, had a shocker for Italy at right-back and he was substituted off in the 59th minute -- presumably because Kagawa gave him such a difficult time. The Italian wasn't even much of a threat going forward -- which is what he excels at -- because the United playmaker did well to track back on him when necessary. This is more virtuous when you consider that the latter was often scrambling back from central positions due to his freedom to roam when Japan were in possession.
In this match, we saw Kagawa at his best: he was brilliant in finding space and creating it for others, he pulled the strings as everything in Japan's attack seemingly went through him, he showed the ability to create chances in a variety of ways (whether it be from a cross, a through-ball, or quick combination play), and he showed his ability to score goals. He also showed David Moyes how he can be properly used from the left in games where the new United manager doesn't expect to lose the possession nor territory battle.