Could fatigue be the reason Manchester United are not seeing the same Kagawa who lit up the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund?
Even David Moyes admitted that Manchester United had not played well in last week’s League Cup semi-final defeat at home to Sunderland.
The reigning Premier League champions looked abject for large periods, creating few clear-cut chances. While their penalty woe was symbolic of their campaign to date – the younger players stepping up while their more experienced teammates opted not to, and said youngsters not quite having enough to send the club to a much-needed final.
Aside from Adnan Januzaj, the one United player who offered some sparkle had long-since departed by the time Rafael stepped up to take the final kick of a forgettable shoot-out.
By then, Shinji Kagawa was standing on the touchline with United’s substitutes and coaching staff, powerless to alter what was happening on the pitch.
But for the first hour of the match, the Japanese play-maker had offered as much as anyone, always wanting the ball, and always looking for the next forward pass, the next through-ball, the next chance for a team for whom chances have been in short supply.
Following Kagawa’s substitution in the 60th minute – to be replaced by Antonio Valencia – United lost half their sparkle, which made me wonder why this story was commonplace; why the former Borussia Dortmund man was so regularly replaced even when he appeared to be conducting United’s best moves.
That is not to say he is repeating his Bundesliga form. Apart from brief glimpses of brilliance he has fallen well short of what he showed under Jurgen Klopp. But against Sunderland – as on previous occasions – Kagawa still looked like he could make the difference, even more so against a tiring defence faced with extra-time.
So why was he off with 30 minutes of normal-time still to play? And why was he replaced at half-time against West Bromwich Albion despite being United’s best player in the first half of a match they would ultimately lose in his absence?
Similarly why was he taken off on the hour-mark against Everton – another match United lost by a single goal? And why, in contrast, has he played all but a single minute of United’s last four Champions League matches – in which they took 10 points from a possible 12?
Is it simply a case of stamina, with European matches typically being less frantic affairs than the hustle and bustle of a Premier League match or an English cup competition? Surely that is the only valid reason why a player who can make the difference is so regularly replaced as the game approaches that time when chances are more easily created – when the opposition tires and spaces are left for players with the ability of Kagawa to exploit.
The Japanese international has now been a United player for 18 months. He is no longer settling in, no longer getting used to the club or the league. He should understand both by now. And his training should have ensured he is ready to play for 90 minutes whenever necessary.
Perhaps Moyes simply wanted to change things up, and has done every time he has replaced Kagawa. But United lose something when he departs, something that is rarely replicated or bettered by whoever replaces him.
image: © Marcel Sigg