Shinji Kagawa’s transfer to Manchester United is both surprising and unsurprising in certain aspects. It is surprising that United would sign a player who does not naturally fit into a 4-4-2 shape as Kagawa has nearly always played behind the striker in a trademark 4-2-3-1 at Dortmund. It is unsurprising given how United have been linked with high profile attacking midfielders in recent seasons – Mesut Ozil in 2010, Wesley Sneijder in 2011 and Kagawa + a few others this summer. According to reports, United are looking to sign 2 attacking midfielders this summer and this could very well still take place if young Nick Powell signs.
The ultimate goal behind these targets and the eventual signing of Kagawa would be to increase the fluidity in movement as well as make the team more tactically flexible. At the start of this past season, there was an effort to make the side more fluid than in recent seasons and it did work reasonably well but there were some eventual problems which led to the abandonment of the fluid approach for something more direct, especially after Valencia started hitting form. The problems with that early season set up were that Rooney was behaving as a 9 and half instead of an actual number 10, he doesn’t make lateral movement to the flanks; Ashley Young and Nani didn’t really switch flanks too often despite being two footed wingers and without a real natural holder, United were conceding the most number of shots per game in the Premier League until the defensively assured Michael Carrick started playing regularly.
The lack of flexibility was a major problem for United last season. The 4-4-2 was the default system and any move to a 4-2-3-1 was awkward as both Park Ji-Sung and Ryan Giggs didn’t have the best of seasons. This was particularly evident in that crucial clash at the Etihad stadium where Park was used behind Rooney and was dominated by Yaya Toure.
Kagawa is someone that can provide lateral movement from the centre of the pitch and thereby offer more fluidity and link up play with those around him. His role as an attacking midfielder also provides more tactical options for United -
This is a very offensive possibility which likely to be seen only when we are looking to break down a very resilient side. It’s possibly the most attacking setup possible with 5 attack minded players and 2 attacking full backs. Carrick is the only one sitting and distributing from a deeper position while a centre back like Evans has been known to run with the ball into the attacking third.
Could be used – In situations where United need goals desperately or are struggling to break down very organized defences. It is not applicable in most games though as the midfield would get overrun.
This is the most fluid possibility as it features a very fluid front 4. Rooney plays as a false nine, dropping deep to start attacks while also spearheading the front line. Kagawa can drift towards the flank as Nani and Young drift inwards which facilitates decent level of positional interchange (this will of course take a good amount of time playing together to be implemented perfectly, fluidity doesn’t appear overnight). The full backs can stretch the play by providing width while the double pivot in midfield provides stability with a defensive square of sorts which would serve as the backbone of the side.
Could be used – In most games I suspect even though it won’t happen too often if Valencia stays fit throughout the campaign. The system is still missing a defensively sound player in midfield who can operate as a destroyer (while still having enough passing ability to not be a burden in buildups) which is still a major issue that needs to be solved.
You may have noticed that this is more or less the same setup United used in the second half of the season. If Kagawa is to be fitted into this system, it is much more likely (or at least more appropriate) that he will be played as a secondary striker behind Rooney rather than be pushed back into a central midfield position.
Kagawa’s stats do indicate that he is not suited to the central midfield position in the above formation. His pass success rate over the past 2 seasons is a mere 82% while Fletcher, Carrick, Cleverley and Scholes all average around a success rate of 90%. He also prefers to play short passes, a deeper role like that of Scholes requires longer passes. Kagawa also makes a low number of interceptions (0.7 per game) and isn’t very good at tackling. All of this indicates that he shouldn’t be converted to a deeper role.
The system would work well although it isn’t as fluid as other possibilities. Rooney would still get involved when possible, Kagawa will be in his favoured role and Cleverley can link up the play as well. The wingers will be more direct, looking to get past their full backs instead of roaming inside most of the time thereby reducing the dependence on the full backs for width.
The problem of the lack of a ball winner will still be quite evident here, Kagawa doesn’t solve that problem.
Could be used – If United don’t really switch to a 4-2-3-1 on a regular basis this season. But with the interest in attacking midfielders, I do believe the switch to the 4-2-3-1 is more than likely and so this may be used quite rarely.
The signing of Shinji Kagawa does not mean that the need of a midfield destroyer who can help United press has been solved. That issue still remains unsolved (and might remain that way for a while given what Fergie has said to the media in recent times). What Kagawa does provide is more variety in attack which gives the manager more options to change things before and during games. With more flexibility, one can also expect more rotation which will definitely put United in a better position to go after multiple competitions.