By Joe Woodier
There has been a reoccurring theme in Manchester United’s performances in the last few weeks. As opposed to the start of the season where we were regularly conceding the first goal, United have started games well and gone ahead, failed to kill the game off to then been subject to late pressure from the opposition.
It happened against Southampton, last weekend against Tottenham Hotspur and the weekend before that against Liverpool at Old Trafford. The explanation for this late pressure is relatively straight-forward – United simply haven’t been retaining possession well enough in the closing stages of performances lately.
In every single one of these performances Shinji Kagawa has been substituted off and to me, this is no coincidence. He was taken off at the 77th minute against Liverpool, the 62nd against Tottenham Hotspur and the 73rd against Southampton, and if you think back to each of those results, it was around those times that United started having their backs against the walls.
Many would argue that the Japanese midfielder hasn’t set the world alight so far, and they would be right – he hasn’t. What he is providing the Manchester club with right now is composure. His ball retention is magnificent under pressure and so far in his 11 Premier League appearances, he has achieved an impressive 90.5 percent pass success ratio.
Shinji Kagawa appears to be fitting with the mentality at Manchester United with the high standards which he is hoping to achieve as he has openly spoken out about his desire to improve his game and up his level at the club.
Kagawa recently said: “I’m really feeling that I need to perform better.
“I’m not satisfied with what I have done here at all.”
He seems to have the right attitude and the more he plays, the better his game is getting. Particularly alongside Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick, he appears comfortable and his link up play is improving with every performance. After coming back from a knee injury picked up against Braga, he is gradually coming into the first team bringing a different dimension to United’s play.
Shinji is a footballer very different to anyone United have had at the club before in the sense that he doesn’t have a defining role in United’s traditionally favoured 4-4-2 formation. Many have been left to question where the Japanese International will fit in at United but it seems that his arrival has marked the beginning of a new approach, an alternative style of play.
His favoured position, and the one that he filled during his successful time at Borussia Dortmund, was behind the central striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation and it’s one that United are becoming more familiar with using Kagawa, Welbeck, Young or Rooney operating in the three behind Van Persie or Hernandez.
This new dimension brings United not only a greater fluidity in attack but also a greater resilience at the back. In recent times, the most cynical of critics have argued that United’s central midfield has been suspect to being overrun – particularly against European opposition who play with more players in the middle such as Barcelona and Athletico Bilbao.
The colossal clash against Real Madrid in the Champions League is approaching quickly and it would be unsurprising to see United adopt this 4-2-3-1 formation, with Kagawa being pivotal in his central-attacking midfield role.
Further incentive to adopt this style of play can be found in the performances of United’s wingers of late. Nani still remains inconsistent and mistrusted by Sir Alex and Antonia Valencia is suffering a worrying dip in form and seems reluctant to take a man on since he has inherited the iconic #7 shirt.
Only Ashley Young appears to be showing consistency and his recent injury means that he will most likely miss out on the first leg trip to the Santiago Bernabéu and a midfield of Alonso, Khedira and Ozil could be matched by the trio of Carrick, Cleverley and Kagawa.
Kagawa’sperformance against Southampton may have satisfied him, particularly his wonderfully timed assist for Rooney’s first. It’s exciting to see how the 23-year-old will develop in the second half of the season and to see whether the ‘luxury’ player can kick on to establish himself as a necessity for Manchester United.