The Busby Babe continues with the 23rd installment of our 2012-13 Manchester United player reviews. Next up is attacking-midfielder Shinji Kagawa.
I'm going to be dividing each of the player reviews into three categories: 'what was expected' will be a brief and general explanation of what the expectations were for the player prior to the season's start, 'what we got' will typically be the section with the most depth as this will be the heart of the review, and 'what's next?' will be an examination of the player's future at United.
What was expected
With speculation swirling in the spring of 2012 that Borussia Dortmund playmaker Shinjki Kagawa was being linked with a move to Old Trafford, United supporters were understandably quite giddy at the prospect -- and that excitement perhaps escalated after his sensational performance in that season's DFB-Pokal final versus Bayern Munich. By early June, United had announced that the Japan international would indeed be joining the club. With Wayne Rooney's declining form in the No.10 role in the 2011-12 season, the thought was that he'd push higher into the No.9 role while Kagawa would become United's No.10. However, after Robin van Persie's August arrival, it was uncertain on what the roles for Kagawa and Rooney would be. Would the Englishman resume his No.10 duties with the Japanese playmaker being shunted out wide (a role he plays with Japan)? No matter what Kagawa's role(s) would be, there was eager anticipation that the club had purchased a playmaker uniquely different from any other during the Sir Alex Ferguson era.
What we got
* GS: games started (substituted appearances),G = goals scored, A = assists, Min/G = minutes per goal, SH/gm = shot attempts per game, SOT % = shots on target %, Avg P = average passes per game, Pass % = passing accuracy percentage, FT % = final third passing accuracy percentage, KP = chances created per game, C = successful crosses per game, C% = successful crossing rate,TB = successful through balls per game, DRB = successful dribbles per game, FW = fouls won per game
Kagawa's first season at United was a mixed bag. While he flashed his obvious talent, his season was hindered in stretches by injuries and inconsistent form. It wasn't that the playmaker's form was ever really bad or anything -- in fact, he was very good at times -- it's just that he seemed to have the tendency to drift out of matches. His influence never reached the heights that it did at Dortmund.
For Dortmund, Kagawa was deployed nearly exclusively as a central-playmaker by manager Jurgen Klopp. At United, Ferguson only gave the 24-year-old 13 combined starts in a similar central role during Premier League and UEFA Champions League action while 10 starts were made out wide. Kagawa, though, has performed well as a left-sided interiore for Japan so it's still worth pondering just why United haven't been able to get the best out of their playmaker.
During Dortmund's two recent Bundesliga title-winning sides, Klopp typically instructed his side to press high up the pitch and they successfully did so with incredible intensity and cohesion. On their day, the German side were arguably as good as anyone in Europe. Kagawa's role was to pressure the opposition's center-backs and/or the deepest-lying midfielder and when Dortmund won possession in their opponent's half of the pitch, the front four of their 4-2-3-1 system combined with precision and impressive speed as they broke towards goal. Kagawa's excelled in the system with his speed of thought, appreciation of space, close-control, and impressive technical ability. He also had an eye for goal as evidenced by his 13 league goals during his last season at the Westfalenstadion.
At United this season, Kagawa and his teammates didn't exhibit the same sort of understanding. Ferguson's side tended to emphasize possession and a slower build-up to their attacks in comparison to Dortmund's instant transitions. Thus, Kagawa often dropped deeper to pick up the ball and instead of already being in the attacking third when he received in these instances, he often was faced with an opposition defense that was more organized in their shape. Possession tended to get safely recycled more while incisive passes were attempted at a less frequent rate (89.7% pass completion rate this season versus 83.1% last season for Dortmund is perhaps evidence of this). In addition, Kagawa seemed less hesitant to take on defenders in deeper positions than when he tried to skip past defenders when transitions occured high up the pitch at Dortmund(0.4 successful dribbles per game this season versus 2.0 last season).
Even if you're in the category of being disappointed by Kagawa's season, you'd still likely have to be overly critical and/or unrealistic with your expectations if you happen to feel that he wasn't a contributor to United's title-winning season. He wasn't a key player in United's 20th title, but he was an effective one. Defensively, the Japan international is disciplined as a No.10 as he excels in pressing the opposition while he can also position himself wisely if asked to stand off and prevent easy passes into midfield. In the opponent's half of the pitch, he links play well and he's exhibited the ability to unlock the opposition's defense -- albeit perhaps not quite to the ability of a David Silva or a Santi Cazorla -- with a brilliant through-ball or a creative angled pass. In addition, his movement is intelligent and off the ball, he seems to find the similar pockets of space that Juan Mata does. Furthermore, he showed hints of his goalscoring potential this season -- in particular, this feign and then cleverly caressed, calm finish into the corner against Norwich City was a beauty:
via Beautifully Red
The general acceptance seems to be that Kagawa could reach the heights of his Dortmund days next season because he now has a year of experience in England and he'll have another pre-season with United. Therefore, the thought is that he'll be further acclimated at Old Trafford. Perhaps that will be true, but that's not something that can be safely assumed.
The Rooney transfer saga will influence Kagawa's upcoming season. If the Englishman stays, he's likely to further provide competition for Kagawa's preferred No.10 role because van Persie is firmly entrenched as the first-choice No.9. If Kagawa goes back-and-forth from central and wide roles, he may experience a similar season to the one he just had at United. That wouldn't be disastrous by any means, but it would leave both the player and club unfulfilled.
If Rooney is sold, and if someone like rumored target Cesc Fabregas isn't brought in, then Kagawa will likely have the opportunity to make the No.10 role his own. Even though I think he would seize it, there are no guarantees that he would. Even if he doesn't, then United could at least drop van Persie deeper in behind Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) and if a tactical job needs to be done, then Danny Welbeck could fill that role as well. It seems worth it, though, and prudent to allow Kagawa a season as the first-choice central playmaker. If United want to stick him out wide, then hopefully he develops an understanding with his teammates so that he can be effective out there like he is for a cohesive Japan. It'll be very interesting to see how new manager David Moyes uses his talented playmaker.