As the new season approaches, Manchester United have made two key signings this summer in Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw. Whilst these signings were undeniably vital, there are still areas of the squad which are in need of some serious attention over the remainder of this transfer window and the ones to come. One position for which no more purchases are necessary is attacking midfield, more specifically, United have a surplus of ‘number 10s’. Juan Mata, Shinji Kagawa, Adnan Januzaj and Wayne Rooney all count 10 as their favourite position, and as we have seen, all four are capable of producing match-winning moments. Louis van Gaal has several viable options for dealing with this imbalance, and should he pick the correct one, United’s attack has the potential to be the envy of the Premier League.
The easiest and most obvious way to start is to remove Wayne Rooney as an option. On the preseason tour Rooney played as an out and out striker, which is almost certainly his best position at this stage of his career. In addition, given United’s ever shaky midfield, there have been calls over the past few seasons for him to play in the middle. This could well be a solution that best benefits the team. Most praise of Rooney these days centres on his work rate, and this along with his range of passing and dead ball ability is definitely the best part of his game. These are attributes which are ideal for a midfielder. What’s more, wherever Rooney plays, he is not going to lose his touch in front of goal, and will still be able to take chances when they fall to him. Playing Rooney in midfield removes the congestion from the number 10 position and could give United the goal-scoring midfielder they have been missing for so long.
Even with Rooney playing in a different position, it leaves three hugely talented players at three very different stages of their careers competing for one spot in the team. Juan Mata is the best player Manchester United have, and is approaching his peak years; Shinji Kagawa is brimming with talent which – partly through his own fault and partly through misfortune – he has yet to express consistently at Old Trafford; and Adnan Januzaj has the world at his feet, but surely a season as second or third choice will do nothing for his confidence or development. A very narrow formation could fit all three players in, and given the dearth of talent on the wings in the current squad this could be the best fit for United. However, the 3-5-2 formation which has been favoured by Louis van Gaal in preseason does not allow for overloading this area of the pitch. A 4-2-3-1 with a 3 of Mata, Januzaj and Kagawa is probably the best way of channelling all of the attacking talent, but this leaves the team largely imbalanced and vulnerable at the back, with the full backs isolated and the inexperienced central defenders potentially exposed regularly.
Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj are rightly viewed by the club and the fans as unsellable. This leaves Shinji Kagawa as the odd man out, and this is a good time to make the case I’m his defence. Kagawa was somewhat unfortunate that he was signed before Robin van Persie was available, as the Dutchman’s arrival forced Rooney back to Kagawa’s favoured position, and he then spent much of his first season watching the new marquee signing winning the title almost single handedly. With van Persie injured for much of last season, Kagawa may well have got his chance, however in January, Juan Mata arrived, forcing the Japanese from the top of the pecking order once more. His inability to make a huge impression so far has led many fans to overlook what he is capable of when given the opportunity. His hat trick against Norwich was frankly sublime, and his ability to manufacture space is breathtaking. Kagawa is capable of magic, and he is more than talented enough to deserve at least one more chance at United – especially considering the dispensation allowed to players such as Anderson. However, Louis van Gaal’s brief experiment with playing him in the centre of midfield in the US was ended by his clear preference and higher level of performance at Number 10. Another option is for Kagawa to bide his time and wait for a chance to impress under the new manager. It is not unusual for players – particularly mercurial attacking midfielders – to raise their game when they feel (or they are told) that they have something to prove. Indeed, the thought of Mata and Kagawa both raising their games to compete for a spot in the team is enough to get any fan excited.
The final and most unfortunate way to deal with the problem is to sell one of the players, who, for reasons mentioned above, would have to be Kagawa. This would be a shame; to lose Kagawa would be to lose a huge amount of attacking talent and potential, and with United aiming for European football again next season, it would be unwise to lose all squad depth. Rumours of a return to the Bundesliga for Kagawa were rife under David Moyes, but have subsided since the appointment of the new manager. His talent, along with performances at Dortmund, mean he certainly has enough of a reputation to be desirable to big European clubs, and perhaps his use as a makeweight in a deal for a player in a position more essential to the team’s needs would solve several problems with the squad’s balance. It is one of many situations Louis van Gaal will have to handle carefully, however if – or rather when – he gets it right, United will be an attacking force to be reckoned with.