There has been a reoccurring theme in Manchester United’s performances in the last few weeks. As opposed to the start of the season United have been starting games well, gone ahead, failed to kill the game off and then been subject to late pressure from the opposition.
It happened on Wednesday night against Southampton, last weekend against Spurs, and then 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 Spurs and then last night at the 73rd minute, and if you think back to each of those results these time periods are around the same time 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 pass success ratio.
Particularly alongside Tom Cleverley and Michael Carrick he appears comfortable and his link up play is improving with every performance. After coming back from an 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 the 4-2-3-1 formation and it’s one that United are becoming more and more familiar with, with Kagawa, Welbeck, Young or Rooney operating in the 3 behind Van Persie.
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 Manchester 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 even Athletico Bilbao to an extent.
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 number 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. A midfield of Alonso, Khedira and Ozil could be matched by the trio of Carrick, Cleverley and Kagawa – United certainly wouldn’t struggle with retaining possession.
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.
'I’m really feeling that I need to perform better,' Kagawa has recently reported. 'I’m not satisfied with what I have done here at all.’ Wednesday's performance may have satisfied him however, 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; whether the ‘luxury’ player can kick on to establish himself as a necessity for Manchester United.