It was about a month ago, when Shinji Kagawa was nearing return from injury, that I pondered what his role would be in this Manchester United side. The former Borussia Dortmund player has made it clear that he prefers a central playmaker's role in behind a lead striker but against Liverpool, he was shunted out wide to the left. And in general, he impressed.
Now, Kagawa didn't hug the touchline waiting to receive like a traditional winger tends to do -- Antonio Valencia is probably the most extreme example of this from a top European top side. Instead, the Japanese international used clever movement and his appreciation of space to drift inside where he was able to find pockets of it in central areas. This was aided by the continual movement of striker Danny Welbeck -- in United's 4-4-2 shape that day -- into the channel between the opposition full-back and center-back. The Englishman's own intelligent runs and the threat of his pace often dragged a central-defender out of position while Liverpool's right-back -- youngster Andre Wisdom -- wasn't entirely sure whether or not he should follow Kagawa inside.
In this role as a technical interiore -- a winger that tends to float inside into central positions -- Kagawa combined well with teammates in his proximity. As just discussed, Welbeck interchanged at times with the playmaker while Tom Cleverley (from central-midfield) and Patrice Evra (from his left-back position) also got forward for combination play. United's impressive pressing, particularly in the first-half, along with fluid movement in attack continually led to a poor defensive shape for Liverpool. It was fitting that United's first-goal resulted from elements of this.
From an inside-left position in attack, the trio of Cleverley, Kagawa, and Welbeck quickly combined in tight spaces and this cleared space out wide for Evra to get forward into. The Frenchman then sent in a cross from the left-flank that the unstoppable Robin van Persie clinically finished for an early goal. The exchange of passes between Cleverley, Kagawa, and Welbeck was threatening enough to where Wisdom couldn't get tight on Evra nor could Martin Skrtel on van Persie. Both Liverpool defenders were briefly tempted to help out in this inside-left zone.
Kagawa can certainly be extraordinary as a No.10 and this is evident by his highly influential role in Dortmund being the kings of the Bundesliga for the past two seasons. At United though, for various reasons*, he's yet to thrive in this role, despite some obvious flashes of talent. In addition, it's a role that Wayne Rooney certainly prefers at this moment of his career -- even though he plays the role differently from Kagawa. Perhaps though, the Japanese attacker can carve out a niche for himself for the remainder of the season as a left-sided interiore. It's an option that is certainly worth exploring.
* This writer strongly feels that United simply don't know how to properly utilize his ability as a No.10 since the club hasn't had a player like this during Sir Alex Ferguson's 26-year reign. Hopefully this doesn't turn into a Juan Sebastian Veron situation.
For the most part, Rooney has been in fine form this season and this has mostly occurred in Kagawa's preferred position. The England international has a fine understanding with the likes of van Persie, Welbeck, and Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) and cohesion is obviously important in attack. In addition, Rooney's (current) willingness to track back and engage in battles in the center of the park can be vital when United's midfield fails to show enough bite and aggression. When he needs a rest though, or when his form dips (which is seemingly possible at any given moment), then Kagawa is an excellent alternative.
Out wide, the wingers for the Red Devils have left a lot to be desired this season. Last season's player of the year -- Antonio Valencia -- who was voted this by his fellow United teammates, has been out-of-form for much of this campaign. In addition, Nani has been either injured during the past five months or he's simply been extremely disappointing during his limited time on the pitch. Ashley Young, to his credit, has performed well in 'big games' versus Chelsea and Manchester City but he's been inconsistent. At 39-years-old, Ryan Giggs can no longer be relied on to fly up-and-down the wing on a weekly basis. Furthermore the versatile Welbeck is best as a striker and not as a winger.
The battle on the right-flank is mostly down to Valencia and Nani, with the Ecuadorian probably being preferred at the moment. On the left though, there's an opportunity if Kagawa wants to take advantage of it. It's also a role he typically is deployed in with the Japanese national team since CSKA Moscow's more experienced Keisuke Honda has generally been preferred for the No.10 role. Young is likely to be unavailable for the next few fixtures due to injury while Nani cannot be relied upon at the moment due to the reasons just mentioned. Against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, Ferguson may want to give Kagawa another go on the left-flank.
In the last outing versus Spurs, United were completely overrun in the first-half of the match as the likes of Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick, Giggs, and Rio Ferdinand struggled to deal with the dribbling and athleticism of Moussa Dembele, Gareth Bale, and Jan Vertonghen. Perhaps United may be a bit more vibrant and mobile themselves if the likes of Kagawa, Welbeck, and Cleverley are given the chance to build on their impressive performance against Liverpool. Kagawa, in particular, could possibly ignite his United career if he were to have consecutive successful outings in 'big games' -- even if it is as an interiore rather than in his preferred No.10 role.