The Art of Subtlety: Illustrations of Kagawa’s Intelligence vs Olympiakos

Manchester United Shinji Kagawa positioning, intelligence, tactics

“It was quite difficult because my team-mates are often in the area where I want to play. That’s why I have to change my tactics. Unfortunately, they are often in my area. It was much too slow today and we only had one shot on target in the whole match against Olympiakos, which is far too little. Everyone is very disappointed.” 

Van Persie said after the 2-0 defeat to Olympiakos.

Couldn’t agree more with Van Persie; some of United’s players positional sense were poor. The introduction of Kagawa showed what is clearly lacking in some of United players, especially Rooney in the no.10 role. Kagawa clearly illustrated how modern football should be played.

This article is to illustrate the points I made in my last post on why Kagawa is the key for United with his understanding of the game and positional intelligence.

His positional intelligence – constant movement in relative to the ball,space, teammates & oppositions – is a sight to behold. His abilities to play in tight spaces and quick turn to change the direction of play is just pure elegant. His understanding of the game and decision making makes him one of the best modern breed of pure no.10 in European football.

Illustration 1- The Art of Movement.

Below is the sequences of Kagawa’s positioning in a buildup play. Pay attention to his positioning as he constantly moved around in relative to the space, ball, teammates and oppositions with a clear passing lane for the players on the ball so that they can feed him the ball.

11.) Ferdinand is on the ball to initiate a buildup play. Kagawa circled red was the only United player to have plenty of space with clear passing lane for Ferdinand to make a pass to him but unfortunately, Ferdinand was not confidence enough to make a forward pass to him.

22.) As Ferdinand was looking for a way out, Kagawa dropped deep to help the buildup play to progress forward by overloading the centre area.

33.)After a few simple passes with Ferdinand and Carrick, Kagawa is on the left, return a pass to Carrick. Watch the next snapshot on how he positioned himself in relative to the space, ball, teammates and oppositions.

44.) Kagawa dropped higher in between 2 Olympiakos players with a clear passing lane for Carrick to feed him the ball. His positioning enabled him to construct triangles with his teammates which provided him plenty of options for a combination play.

55.) Received the ball and made a quick turned and played a through pass to Evra. From buildup phase to penetration phase, he successfully made the transition play happened by connecting the midfield and forward.

Illustration 2 : Playing in tight spaces

In modern games where oppositions’s defence are more compact with higher density of defensive lines, hence, it is important for a modern player to be able to have good technical abilities to play in tight spaces.

11.)Received a high ball and Kagawa able to control it even though the opposition was closed on him.

22.)Calmly bring down the ball. 3 Olympiakos players were starting to close down on Kagawa.

33.)Managed to skip past 3 Olympiakos players. The only let down was the positioning of Rooney who was not moving quick enough.

44.)Great composure from Kagawa to release the ball to Rooney even though he was being surrounded by oppositions. Unfortunately, Rooney was too static and the opposition closed down the ball quicker than Rooney.

Illustration 3 : The Art of Building Up Play

One of the main reason United struggled in a lot of matches including the game against Olympiakos is the inability to buildup and progress the play to final third. United attack were disrupted even in the buildup phase especially when oppositions pressing high up the pitch. Kagawa should able to solve the disconnection between the midfielders and forwards with his positional intelligence and understanding of the game to progress the play from the back.

21.) Kagawa was dropping Deep to receive the ball to help in the buildup phase.

32.) This showed how intelligent Kagawa is. There was not much option for Kagawa to play the ball forward. There was only Evra on the left who was in space but instead of playing the ball directly to Evra, he slowly progressing the play forward, drawing the opposition toward him before releasing the ball to Evra so that he can surge forward with more space. The opposition in front of Kagawa was waiting for him to pass it to Evra then he will proceed to close down Evra but Kagawa never did, hence the opposition has not choice but to close down Kagawa.

43.)If Kagawa able to release to Evra, then the play will be successfully made the transition from buildup play into penetration in final third. Unfortunately, Kagawa did not make it but the idea was there.

Illustration 4 : The Art of Penetration through the Middle.

11.) On the right side, offering support to Smalling. Most United players will usually pass it forward to Young at right wing position.

31.) Instead, Kagawa made a quick turn to change the direction of the play.

43.) Passed it to Rooney in space and made a great run toward the centre.

64.) Received the return pass from Rooney and continued to bring the ball to the middle.

75.) Released the ball to Evra who was running into the space on the left.

Final Illustration : The Art of Building Triangles & Positioning

The key in possession football is the structure of the team shape. By creating more triangles, web of passing angles will be created too to keep the game flows. In order to build all these triangles, a team must have a focal point connecting all the other players and Kagawa is very good in this regard.

If you are watching the match, pay attention to Kagawa on the how he moves so subtlety in relative to the ball, space, teammates and oppositions. Sadly, one of the main reason he is unable to showcase more of his talent is because his team-mates were unable to find him even though he has a lot of space & a clear passing lane for his teammate who is having the ball. Below is the illustration where Kagawa did not receive the ball when clearly, he was the best option for his teammates.b d e p

This is what Kagawa can do if other players able to find him.

h i

Finally, Kagawa is the key if United want to play a more progressive type of football.

g k m

Moyes is looking outside for gold, not realising that he already has a true gem in his hands.



  1. Good Analysis! Simply watching Kagawa playing during the live broadcast was nice to see without having to replay the game. Infact, Rooney probably causes the biggest issue for Kagawa’s modern No.10 role and Rooney needs to be moved to a striker role, learn to play his role properly or moved out of the club.

  2. Rooney, RVP doesn’t work. One or the other. In Kagawa we are going to lose a diamond, it’s painful to watch this at the minute. Can only see Olympiacos hammering us at OT. Needs to grow a pair Moyes. Who goes defensive when we haven’t got the capable players to pull it off. It’s getting harder and harder to stay behind Moyes, I will though. GGMU

  3. Totally agree Moyes has got no clue about football and is going to sell Kagawa if he is not fired first and to be honest let Rooney and Van fight for that 9 position we got Mata and Shinji not playing because of Roo who in my case doesn’t deserve that new contract after his second transfer request yet Moyes treats him like a king and we all wonder why the players are playing like that Moyes should have been fired lime AVB look at spurs now just like Adebayor we got the same situation with Shinji you can’t tell me that anyone normal would play Young before Shinji he is the best United player and gets no game time Moyes wa ts to clean house so he can go back and over pay for Everton players

  4. pretty much been saying this since before the season started. i wrote an article about it on pride of all europe. nice to see with the video clips though, perfectly illustrated! good work!

  5. Very Good analysis . It really pains to see a player of high caliber like Kagawa is rotting on the bench. The worst part is that we have not even tried him properly . I think it will not be possible till Rooney is playing the no.10 role. We need to play Mata, Kagawa , Januzaj and RVP/Hernandez . Man Utd has blundered by giving a hefty contract to Rooney .

  6. Oh moyes again.. Kagawa as #10 made our final third lively as we can see against leverkusen. The gem easily omitted by “ingeniously” moyes tactic. Not surprise because he still doesn’t know what he is doing.

    Meanwhile, at the end of the previous season, in my opinion the “Sir Alex vs Roo” war was obviously arranged because Sir Alex wanted to sell rooney abroad instead of to put him on transfer list could cause price reduction. Yet, moyes came and ruined it. Now he is putting United into the dark age again

  7. Very nice article, Phil.

    I think the image with the sluggish Rooney illustrates perfectly why Kagawa hasn’t made the impact he could have made in the few chances he has been given. At Dortmund, Klopp built the entire formation around Kagawa. High press, quick, rapid exchanges, and young legs who will burst into space that Kagawa’s beautiful movement would create. The trouble we have at United is that apart from Carrick, we have absolutely no player with the kind of positional sense in the midfield to make Kagawa tick, and Carrick doesn’t have the legs.

    Up front, in a single striker role, surprisingly enough, all of Welbeck, Rooney and RVP are precisely the kind of players who would enjoy having Kagawa play behind them. The pre-illness Fletcher would have been a perfect fit too.

    We put in a good B2B midfielder, someone in the mould of Ikay, and suddenly Kagawa can change the whole of United.

    Unfortunately, I very much fear that this is Kagawa’s last season as an United player. (If it was me, I would certainly leave).

  8. I really impressed its article.Since Kagawa left Borussia 09 e.V. Dortmund,he has lost his position in United.But Manchester need to use him.He has good talent as middle center field.

  9. Can anyone forward this to Moyes please?

    What frustrates me in the match was the number of times Kawaga ran into space and wanted the ball from Rooney, Rooney simply loft the ball over everyone.

    1. Rooney has been doing that all season. In fact, I’d go as to say that when Kagawa was playing with Rooney earlier in the season (October/November, I think), even though Kagawa was played wide, Rooney made an effort NOT to pass Kagawa the ball.

  10. Why not even try him in central midfield? Moyes seems to have a hard on for big strong players in the central area, doesnt seem to value the creative type of player. He once talked about how dificult it is to find players like Iniesta but truth is Moyes wants a team of athletes and doesnt have room for ball players which is why our football is so good.

    We’d need our heads examined giving this man the chance to mould our squad.

    1. Agree with you on this “but truth is Moyes wants a team of athletes and doesn’t have room for ball players”. Never mind that he doesn’t have a clue. You cannot have a serial loser at our CLUB [just go back to last season when Martinez’s Wigan gave him a football lesson in the FA Cup]

      He is so intent on becoming the destroyer of a once GREAT Club
      Maybe he ,his assistant and one P.Neville should do the honourable thing and resign. They are not cut out to coach,not alone Manage UTD.

  11. I agree with the main thrust of the article but most of these diagrams are ridiculous. You realize there’s a huge chance two Olympiakos players are gonna intercept the ball if Rio attempts to pass in the first example?

    And the ones at the end are just a bunch of lines on a static image.

    Pretty sure you could make exactly the same point with similar diagrams (i.e. that sometimes players don’t make the right decision) for some of United’s greatest ever goals.

    But, yeah, we have a manager who won’t drop either RVP or Rooney so that means we end up playing with a mess behind them. It’s up to the manager to balance playing his best players and playing in a set system that works — and Moyes is doing neither right now.

  12. i even wonder why SAF choose him.. 11year at one club with any thing to prof that he is capable of handle suck a big club like manutd. ask for me he and staff must leave the club for better of the club..

  13. Kagawa understand “football”.

    Moyes? ohhhh… he need a football teacher .

    Mnachester united need a “New Technical Director”.

    And kagawa must escape immediately this anti football team.

  14. I agree with you Roger. From my understanding, Japanese players work very hard and their passing ability is definitely world-class. In Endo, Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and some playing in their domestic league, have definitely showed class in their techniques, from passing to set pieces, The fact that Kagawa has been left out, is because Moyes could only see himself playing old-school crosses due to the squad left to him. If you guys remember, Moyes’s Everton had been masters in set-pieces all the while, in fact in most of the past few seasons, Moyes’s Everton had the highest set-piece accuracy.

    To be fair to Moyes, I believe why he stop playing Kagawa is because, Carrick and Cleverley, compared to Kagawa, are generally very different type of CM. If he brings Kagawa higher, there’s a Rooney holding that spot, In order to pacify Rooney, Kagawa had to be sacrificed. Shifting Rooney to striker position, is what everybody wants to see but sometimes we forget, Rooney will never be a complete striker. In fact, we never know what might happen in the long run, if we place Kagawa in the no.10, and which ever partnership in front of Kagawa.

    Remember when SAF bought Valencia and Young? Valencia was deadly with his crazy Usain Bolt- like god speed, while Young was doing decently well also. Crosses were not as much then, and no Kagawa then as well. The only logical reason to explain MU’s situation now, and to why Kagawa will eventually get sold to another team, is that, this is not a Moyes team to begin with.

    Taking into consideration his experience with Everton, Moyes’s ability is to utilise a certain player to his full potential, not necessary big-names. But as a United manager, he needs to sign big names to appease the fans and the board, which will not allow him to fail, at least for the fan’s case. I don’t deny I used to be a Moyes fan when he was in Everton, but until everybody gives him a chance to do what he had been doing in Everton, which might just make United back to something more decent and who knows, it might just work. But that is unlikely to happen from what I see now. Otherwise, he really needs a miracle, and just pray hard, the day when Kagawa leaves, he will not come back and haunt OT. But frankly speaking, the only chance of that not happening, is for United to not even get a Europa spot this season, not very difficult now actually.

  15. You should also take note on the quality of our crosses. So far i have not seen anyone capable of doing those for Manchester United other than scholes, beckham and Kagawa.

    Kagawa’s weighted cross:

    Also, IF i am not wrong. Kagawa plays as a LEFT inside forward instead of a Left winger he plays for Moyes. Winger and Inside forward are different position all together. (For those who do not know)

  16. Reality is this. Rooney and the likes of Cleverley are playing to Moyes’ tactics, which are simply to get the ball to wings and then watch them spank a cross literally without aiming into the ‘mixer’ hoping that someone will get on to it. RVP is lazy and does very little apart from when he has the ball, and then often (this season and previously apart from the 2 before this) squanders the chance. We need a three of Rooney, Kagawa and Mata behind a striker, with decent full backs (Shaw and Rafael) giving width. We need a decent holding mid to join Cleverley, and a centre back who is comfortable with playing the ball (like Rio used to be). Moyes fears not playing the big stars, and doesn’t know how to accommodate them, but it’s clear what to do.

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