There’s been so much speculation surrounding incoming players at United this summer – and, in truth, we’re used to nothing else – that the departure lounge at Old Trafford has not received the attention it warrants. United clearly need to invest in the squad, but they equally need to discard some of the mediocrity that has gradually occupied the squad over the last few years as Glazernomics made its presence felt. There has been occasional mentions of players leaving this summer but the statements have been sweeping and the details vague. It’s become well-known that the information drawbridge has been slammed shut since Van Gaal’s arrival (despite Woodward’s rather pointless grandstanding), and it appears that not even the most dependable sources of information can be relied upon for valuable insight any more.
The likely departures have continually been offered up, in particular Anderson, Fellaini, Hernandez, Nani, Young and Cleverley. Recent speculation surrounding Napoli suggests that Fellaini is on his way out, and he’ll be the first, rather than the exception.
One name that intrigues more than any other is Shinji Kagawa. Often included in generalised articles as one of those who should be moved on, yet the reasons for his departure are much less clear-cut than the others on the list. Making a case to edge some players through the exit-door is not difficult: Anderson blew his last chance at least two years ago, Nani’s maddening inconsistency shows no signs of abating, Fellaini’s hair is symbolic of his performances – he simply can’t cut it, while Hernandez, as incisive and effective (and likeable) as he is, will never discover the playing time he so sorely craves at Old Trafford.
There is one possible reason for selling Kagawa, however unlikely it may be. Jurgen Klopp is never reluctant is verbalise his undying man-love for the Japanese playmaker, with David Moyes’ insistence on employing him as a winger almost bringing the German coach to tears. If Kagawa were to leave, a return to Dortmund would appear to make the most sense. It would at least allow Klopp to sleep at night once more and cancel the therapy sessions. From United’s point of view though, this would (or at least, should) only be a viable option were Kagawa to become a proverbial carrot – a tantalising asset to dangle in front of Klopp on the basis he finally allows us to extract Hummels out of his reluctant grasp.
Although it’s a deal that appears to work for all parties in theory, in reality it is very unlikely. Despite the media’s propensity to hawk such stories around on a regular basis, the number of high-profile player-plus-cash-swaps are remarkably few, as there are too many factors to juggle at once. This is particularly true for United, who in recent years usually find a way to make even a straight-forward transfer painfully protracted. That said, if it was a possibility, however remote, it is something that United should pursue. Kagawa is a player worth retaining, but United are not operating from a position of strength – both domestically and across Europe, it is clear they are playing catch-up. However strong some fans’ loyalty to Kagawa may be, a deal that would deliver the club a dominant, high-quality centre-half in the place of a player who struggles to make the first eleven has to make a great deal of sense.
It remains to be seen what happens in that regard, but the chances of it occurring remain slim. The question, then, centres on whether should Kagawa should be sold or retained in his own right. As is the case with many fringe players at United, he divides the fans: those who love the way he plays and the technical skill and intelligence he contributes to the side, and those who frankly fail to see what the fuss is all about. Stats back up the doubters: no goals and just three assists last season hardly suggests a player of great promise, or one who must be kept at all costs. He had opportunities too – not as many as he would want, and even fewer in his favoured position, but his repeated failure to grasp the chances that are presented to him is becoming harder to defend by even his most ardent supporters. There have been flashes of brilliance, and moments of genuine class, but flashes and moments are far from enough at United: after two seasons, the talk should be of performances, impact and influence, not fleeting periods of brilliance, or continued hints of potential.
On this point, the argument that the continual rotation of selection has not helped him does have merit – he appears to be a player who would benefit enormously from continued deployment on the pitch, rather than being sporadically parachuted into the first eleven; a match here, twenty minutes there. All players could justifiably claim the same thing but some – Hernandez, for example – can adapt to this with ease. For others, it significantly affects their form. Kagawa needs to perform with more purpose and influence when he is given a chance, but it would nevertheless be refreshing to see what he can do over a run of games.
It’s unclear what the immediate future holds. No-one knows for certain what Van Gaal’s plans are. Pre-season has revealed his preference, at least in the short-term, for a 3-4-2-1 system, that employs a number ten behind two strikers. Effectively, with Mata as the preferred player in the hole, that leaves Kagawa and Januzai slugging it out to be the under-study. If Van Gaal persists with this system, chances will be clearly limited. It’s worth noting that, ironically, it is a formation that would have suited Kagawa perfectly before Mata’s arrival, allowing both him and Rooney to operate in their ideal positions, but in all honesty such tactical innovation was way beyond David Moyes’ capabilities.
There is a possibility the formation could be tweaked to allow two playmakers to operate behind a lone striker – something that would enhance the possession football Van Gaal favours – but the onus would be on those two players to pressure the opposing full-backs, and it’s doubtful Van Gaal would want to sacrifice a striker to have Mata and Kagawa scurrying after defenders on either flank. The main reason for using the system was to ensure United could still select two strikers, adhering to the strengths of the squad. It’s not impossible he could alter the formation to include an extra playmaker though, but at this stage it seems unlikely.
There has been a suggestion Kagawa could be used in centre-midfield. He has attributes that are suited to the role, in particular his stamina, work-rate, intelligence and passing ability. It would be a possibility as part of a midfield three, but he does not possess the strength or defensive awareness to be solely used alongside Herrera. Unless United are trailing and the match has reached its final twenty minutes, the chances of this happening on a regular basis are immensely small.
Should he stay, then, Kagawa’s role will in all likelihood be a minor one. Unless injuries or a severe loss of form intervenes, Mata will be selected ahead of him, and, as before, Kagawa will be restricted to limited appearances. The only way that can realistically change is if he can perform with such purpose and impact that he forces the manager’s hand. Forget promise and potential, he has to deliver. You get the feeling if he does stay he is nearing his final opportunity.
It has to be hoped he is able to contribute something of note. He needs to start grabbing headlines rather than appearing in footnotes. In a squad that has become imbued with far too much mediocrity over the last few years, it is a great shame that one of the most naturally talented players has been little more than a shadow of what he can be. If he is afforded one last opportunity, it will be his last chance to grab the limelight.