Kagawa poses more questions than answers as Manchester United enter crucial period

The former Dortmund man’s stylish hat-trick against Norwich provided a timely reminder of what he can offer the club, but there are still issues regarding just how he fits in

By Josh Clarke

Bookmarking Shinji Kagawa’s Saturday afternoon were claims, from people who should know, that the Japan international will take until next season to blossom at Manchester United.

Kagawa – old boss Jurgen Klopp told BBC Football Focus in the morning – will push on in 2013-14, after having had time to settle in to his new environment, and, in the early evening, current manager Sir Alex Ferguson advised that the 23-year old will be “far better” with a season under his belt.

However, what happened in between those statements demonstrates perfectly how 90 minutes of football can polarise identical sentiments.

Before Kagawa’s stylish hat-trick against Norwich, a common fear was that the £17 million signing from Borussia Dortmund was ill-suited to his new Premier League surroundings. After it, many will view him as the perfect foil, playing slightly off Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie or a combination of the two.

Suddenly, Klopp’s tempered appeal for patience is superseded by Ferguson’s need to manage expectation.

Perhaps, though, what to expect from Kagawa lies somewhere in the middle.

The hat-trick itself was a lesson in clinical finishing, with the second goal a nonchalant pass into the back of the net and the third a wonderful display of awareness and ability. Both were characterised by a deftness of touch and a measure of imagination.

Floating in and around Rooney and Van Persie, Kagawa looked both thoughtful and dangerous, with a single afternoon’s work eclipsing his goal-scoring endeavours of the entire season so far.

In the aftermath of his match-winning performance it was easy to forget the long list of reasons – a season disrupted by injury, a lack of physicality, age, inexperience, and deployment in a range of positions – given for Kagawa’s inability to take the Premier League instantly by storm.

For all this, Ferguson has no doubts about his playmaker’s potential. The manager was seduced by the telepathic relationships Kagawa formed with almost everybody around him at Signal Iduna Park, particularly right winger Jakub Blaszczykowski. The deftness of touch was and remains to be clear for everybody to see, while his work rate is not in question; he posted the club’s best ever ‘bleep test’ result upon his arrival last summer.

But the signing of Robin Van Persie always looked like it would pose problems for Kagawa right from the outset. Indeed, what was most illuminating in the Norwich game is that he only truly came to the fore when Van Persie was substituted, Rooney was pushed further forward and the Japanese playmaker was positioned in a central role, very similar to the one he made his own, just off Robert Lewandowski, in Dortmund’s 4-2-3-1. That was always likely to be the case.

It was from this position that Kagawa burst late into the box to notch his second and third goals, yet also ultimately pose longer-term questions about the specific role he is to play if he wants to start in this Manchester United team.

The 4-3-3 Ferguson used against Norwich showed that there’s more to life than 4-4-2 at Old Trafford, but in Ferguson’s favoured formation (he will argue it is a 4-4-1-1) and strongest starting line-up, Van Persie will always lead the line and Rooney will always play just off him.

Just how Kagawa makes himself a fundamental cog in the team, with playing through the middle clearly the way to get the very best out of him, is a concern that will probably be eked out over the course of at least a season or two – and will perhaps only be answered when Rooney is ready to adopt a still even-deeper role.

For the meantime, getting the best out of Shinji Kagawa in the team’s favoured set-up remains an issue of trial and error.

Not that that is a problem. With United still fighting on three fronts, the array of options and knock-on personnel variations an in-form Kagawa presents offers a stark contrast to the weary current fortunes of Ashley Young, Nani and Antonio Valencia.

First and foremost in a season that has been very much stop-start for Kagawa, Saturday’s hat-trick proved an emphatic reminder that the playmaker has more than enough quality to feature prominently for a team that finds itself 15 points clear at the top of the table.

The sheer confidence of the finishes, against the backdrop of a season defined by niggling uncertainty, gave a timely reminder at a crucial stage of Manchester United’s season of what Kagawa can do, and will continue to do throughout his stay at Old Trafford.

For the moment, though, Kagawa probably poses more questions than he answers.

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