Nemanja Vidic and Shinji Kagawa are nearing a return to the Manchester United side, with both players in contention to feature against Sunderland at the weekend. Their recovery from injury provides Sir Alex Ferguson with a number of selection headaches just as confidence and momentum is building at Old Trafford.
The reinstatement of club captain Vidic to the United team will be a major boost for the manager, with the defence having shipped 23 goals in the Premier League already this term. Two of the Reds’ most successful recent seasons were the 2007/08 and 2008/09 campaigns, in which they conceded 22 and 24 goals respectively after the full 38 fixtures. This season is only 15 games old.
However, the knock-on effect of Vidic’s return will be a reduction in playing time for some of United’s younger defenders. Rio Ferdinand will surely continue to be the preferred option for the big games this season, with the 34-year-old an enduring world class talent. This would restrict the development of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, not to mention Jonny Evans. The two young Englishmen are able to perform in positions other than centre-back – as opposed to the Northern Irishman – with both having been utilised at full-back by the manager.
Yet the right-back berth has been occupied almost exclusively by Rafael da Silva so far this season, with the 22-year-old featuring in more games than any other United player, and having shown great improvement and maturity through what has been his first prolonged spell in the team. Jones and Smalling provide Ferguson with a different option to the Brazilian, but the manager will be aware that stability is what usually brings consistency and understanding to a backline, and in turn a tighter and more solid base from which to build.
The return of Kagawa is an even more complex conundrum for Ferguson to ponder. Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie are showing the signs of a developing partnership that promises plenty of goals and attacking threat to occupy their opposition’s thoughts. Kagawa was fairly encouraging in the diamond formation in his promising start at the club, and the narrower setup with two strikers favours the Japanese, who can operate in any of the three forward points of the midfield.
A 4-4-2 would leave the playmaker in a more deep-lying position than that in which he generally began life at Old Trafford, and it remains to be seen whether the former Borussia Dortmund man can cut it in a central midfield duo alongside Michael Carrick. The 31-year-old is in consistently good form and is highly rated by Ferguson, and as was seen in last weekend’s win at Manchester City, can form a strong partnership with Tom Cleverley.
A favourable configuration for Kagawa would see him as part of a midfield trio in a 4-3-3 system. This however creates problems in that Rooney would be pulled out of his favoured and influential central position, and is not the ideal formation for Antonio Valencia to work in. It will be interesting to see how the manager reintegrates Kagawa back into his side.
The only way for Ferguson to deal with the return of two talented players is to recognise the added versatility that they afford his team. It enables the manager to keep his opposition guessing, but also provides headaches in terms of which personnel to select and which system to deploy.
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