In his two starts for Manchester United Shinji Kagawa has shone as the fantasy footballer missing from Sir Alex Ferguson's attack. While Robin van Persie is the calmer, svelte Wayne Rooney, potentially a 30-plus a season goal machine, Kagawa is the firefly playmaker who flits between midfield and the forward line creating havoc and scoring, as he did impressively in this nervy 3-2 win for United.

The prospect of Rooney's absence for four weeks due to the nasty cut on his thigh from Hugo Rodallega's boot – the striker spent Saturday night in hospital receiving treatment before being released home – will be felt less because of Kagawa: as Van Persie made his full United debut, Rooney was the fall guy, dropped so that the Japanese could continue the impressive work he began at Everton last Monday.

Kagawa's nearest clone from United's recent honeyed past is Paul Scholes. Writing in the programme, Ferguson said: "I would also include Shinji Kagawa in the [goalscoring] mix because he is very much an attacking player, nominally from midfield but perfectly capable of taking a front role. One thing for sure is that he will add a scoring dimension if he plays central midfield, as he showed last season for Borussia Dortmund.

"He has been very impressive in our pre-season games and at Everton. He is very bright, understands the game and is clever with the ball. He is quickish and doesn't give the ball away, which is an important quality to have in your midfield.

"We have been low on goals from midfield in recent seasons. There was a time when Bryan Robson would give you a dozen through the centre of the park and Paul Scholes in his heyday was good for 10 or so but lately we haven't seen that kind of tally.

"I believe that Kagawa will put that right, which with the addition of Van Persie to the team, should ensure that we don't lose any more titles on goal difference."

United were defeated at Everton 1-0 last Monday but Kagawa's touch, vision and movement impressed. Manchester City have David Silva as their chief lock-picker, while Juan Mata struts his stuff for Chelsea. The creative key to United's hopes of reclaiming the championship rest on Kagawa, who has the low maintenance demeanour and focus admired by Ferguson.

Kagawa scored his side's second here, a 35th-minute tap-in after Tom Cleverley's shot was parried by Mark Schwarzer. On an afternoon that began with Usain Bolt parading his Olympic gold medals and asking the Old Trafford crowd to tell Ferguson to "sign me up", it was the playmaker who appeared the manager's shrewdest bit of summer business.

Van Persie scored a sublime equaliser, a hooked volley on 10 minutes that answered Damien Duff's opener to illustrate why Ferguson paid £23m for him. But the Dutchman is 29 and has a CV pocked with injuries. Kagawa is 23 and cost just £12m.

Cleverley, who sat alongside a lumbering Anderson in United's 4-2-3-1, said of Kagawa: "I love playing with him – one and two touch, high-energy football. We're on the same wavelength." The Englishman views Kagawa as United's missing component. "Definitely. He's brilliant," the 23-year-old said. "He has settled in really well. He links defence with attack. He gets on the half-turn and creates chances. I can't speak highly enough of him."

Rafael da Silva, with a header, added to Kagawa's strike on 41 minutes to stretch United's lead to 3-1 before a second-half mixup between David de Gea – still aerially uncertain – and Nemanja Vidic produced an own goal for Fulham. This offered Martin Jol's side hope of an unlikely draw. United held on to record their opening points of the season, though when Rooney replaced Kagawa with 20 minutes left there was a lull in the home side's thrust.

United's vulnerability at the back is the corollary of Ferguson's central defensive crisis that ruled Rio Ferdinand, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones out and had Jonny Evans on the bench. While Jones and Ferdinand may be back in contention for Sunday's trip to Southampton, Rooney seems certain to miss that game, England's opening World Cup qualifiers next month, the club's opening Champions League match, the meeting with Wigan Athletic and, possibly, the trip to Liverpool on 23 September.

By that juncture Rooney may well be struggling to be recalled to Ferguson's starting XI, if Kagawa continues to shine. According to Van Persie, there is more to come in the understanding between him and the Japanese.

Van Persie said: "Like every player, we have been training every day. The training sessions have been very good with all the guys. It is still a process.

"I have to get used to them and they have to get used to me because I've only been here a week and so we have all the time in the world, and I don't want to rush into things."

Man of the match Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United)