Shinji Kagawa, Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Bundesliga footballer of the year 2011/12, Chelsea player of the season 2012/13, Bundesliga footballer of the year 2015/16. In-that-order.
It is crazy to think that United have been home to some of the best attacking midfielders at some point. All posting ridiculous numbers. Managers did not adapt to the times. The famous line associated with United football – “get it to the wingers” is repeated by many British pundits or former United players. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the first manager to actually bring United out of the stone age in footballing terms.
Kagawa was brought into Old Trafford by Sir Alex in 2012. He had 8 goals and 12 assists when he joined. Not the greatest numbers in his case, however, the way he made a record breaking Dortmund tick was obvious. Kagawa looked graceful on the pitch.
The ghost of Fergie’s 4-4-2 lingered for many years after he left in 2013. In Fergie’s last season, Shinji Kagawa performed admirably for a player who did not actually have an obvious role yet. Sir Alex always adapted and built teams. Kagawa may have been a glimpse into the change of shape and direction Sir Alex would have gone with in the future.
David Moyes replaced Sir Alex. He too didn’t change the system for the Japanese sensation. And he soon left the club. At Borussia Dortmund, he played in the number 10 position in a fluid system. There could be more to why deals such as Ronaldinho fell through. United don’t do silky pure no10s in recent history. Scholes was the last one who played close to that role. As a support striker.
Next came Juan Mata. Poor Juan Mata. A mercurial, intelligent and incredibly gifted operator. Shunned by Jose Mourinho for a more solid direct style without a pure roaming number 10. Mata was not dynamic enough, apparently. David Moyes managed to get him to United in a 40 million pound transfer in December 2014. United fans were excited. Yet again we were signing the best number 10 in the league.
Mata registered 35 assists and 19 goals in the 2012/13 season. THIRTY-FIVE assists. Mata arrived to Antonio Valencia transitioning to right back leaving a massive not-so-Mata sized hole on the right wing. No pace, or trickery, albeit intelligent movement, Mata had to rough it out. Louis van Gaal was meant to be the dream for Juan.
“I think he’s good. Obviously he has a lot of experience. He has character. He has his philosophy and he follows that philosophy until the end. It’s good for the players. The football that he wants us to play is an attractive football and I love that football so I think it’s just a matter of time.” – Juan Mata on LvG
LvG got the sack and in came Mourinho to United. And the nightmare could not get any worse. The Spanish Maestro has been, and will still be slumming it on the right (until Sancho signs). With another right sided player, Mata would never ever have to play there again. He could just understudy Bruno. Maybe.
Next came Mkhitaryan. Yet another player of the year attacking midfielder with insane statistics. 23 goals and 32 assists in one season. United fans were delighted when he signed. The quiet Armenian assassin. The greatest thing he did may end up being an offside scorpion kick goal vs Sunderland. The greatest scorpion kick ever. That is unfair, he also was instrumental in the Europa league run. That aside, a failed swap deal with Sanchez proved he was another failure in that creative position. Jose played with no no.10 in the system. And again Mkhi had to play from the right.
Are we seeing a pattern? United has been shoe-horning attacking midfielders in unnatural positions for years. The issue has always been the system. The refusal to move away from yesteryear principles. The possession football made to protect a slow defense rather than attack. And an overly pragmatic manager who had no time for free roles. Surely, those factors had to be the demise of some of the potentially great orchestrators that could have been special.
Then came Bruno Fernandes. 32 goals and 18 assists for Sporting in 2018/19. Imagination, invention and adaptation. Ole had already shaped the team in a way that it was obvious what piece of the puzzle he needed. Ole inherited Andreas Perreira and Jesse Lingard at number 10. And it immediately seemed like they would be replaced eventually. Ole intentionally built the team to need an attacking midfielder between the lines. Bruno arrived at the perfect time. 25 goals and 22 assists in all competitions for Sporting Lisbon and United in 2019-20 shows he is on his way to being a success.
If Ole had Kagawa, Prime Mata or peak Mkhi as options, he would have been much more equipped to use them. The way United play football had to change at some point. It’s taken a while, however it seems like a footballer of the year attacking midfielder may finally be a success.