Let’s talk about Shinji Kagawa
It was nothing more than a simple finish, the product of an unglamorous move littered with opposition mistakes but important all the same, as all goals in cup finals are. This was Shinji Kagawa’s goal in his last game, the opener for Borussia Dortmund in the DFB-Pokal final against Bayern Munich. But watching over was Sir Alex Ferguson; the importance of such an occasion emphasised by the fact that flanking the Manchester United manager was Mike Phelan, wearing trousers — the presence of these two making that most ordinary of finishes even more significant in a game that would finish 5-2 in Dortmund’s favour.
Kagawa’s move to United would soon be confirmed and his first act as a player was a bold and admirable one for those who value particular shirt numbers, rejecting the no.7 recently held by the likes of David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and Michael Owen: “I want to make a name for myself on my own terms.” Modest, yes, but those who seem to know Kagawa best are certain there is an arrogance in the way he speaks, and the way he plays. He was once very critical of now-former strike partner Robert Lewandowski, claiming that the Polish forward’s “game is purely focused on trying to score himself, rather than playing together with his teammates … that’s why I hardly get the ball from him.”
But Quazi Zulquar, writer for Bundesliga Fanatic, tells me that he believes there is nothing wrong with the Japanese player’s mentality. In fact, quite the contrary, in that it will instead help him thrive at United: “Kagawa is a motivated in the right ways, and his mentality has just the touch of arrogance you require to succeed at a big club,” Zulquar says. “He is not how you stereotypically identify Far Eastern players. He possesses that extra bit of flair and self belief that could be the defining factor from being a role player to an instrumental part of Manchester United for the forseeable future.”
His colleague at the Fanatic, Nicklas Wildhagen, agrees: “His mentality, and his skill would certainly point toward the fact that he has what it takes.” Although, Wildhagen concedes that there are “an array of different factors that could prevent this from happening”. Immediate potential problems that come to mind would be his language barrier, the time it takes to settle and being played in other positions, possibly on the wing. You could counter that, however; he appears to be willing to learn the language, he settled in quickly at Germany (Neven Subtoic: “He came to our league having mainly played in the second division in Japan, but still had an immediate impact”) and Sir Alex has enough options out wide that Kagawa, then, should conceivably play in the ‘hole’, a position he most prefers.
Both Wildhagen and Zulquar believe that United will soon see the benefits of the £17million paid for Kagawa: “£17 million is a little price to pay if you consider how good a player Kagawa actually is,” says Wildhagen. “His movement is impeccable, his understanding of the game itself is fantastic, he knows how to finish off a move, and his speed and technique make him pretty much a complete player.” And then he adds: “… bar headers that is. He’s not the tallest of fellas.” Zulquar asks, somewhat changing the mood: “Is any player worth £17million when he has a year left of his contract? No, in my opinion, and I fear that this is a stick that will be used to beat Kagawa with, if and when he takes time to settle in.” Then he says something reassuring. “But in a perfect world, I feel 17million is fair value for a 23 year old whose ceiling is so high.”
Is there a chance Kagawa’s been over-hyped by some observers? Zulquar thinks the opposite, describing him as ‘sensational’, perhaps humorously hyping the player even further. “For what it’s worth, I believe he is criminally underrated by a lot of quarters. In other words, people who don’t really follow the Bundesliga closely. He is fleet footed, has good turn of pace, a low centre of gravity, very high footballing IQ and a good shot with both feet.”
A stand-out memory? “I remember very fondly the first time I watched Kagawa — and United fans will like this,” Zulquar starts. “It was a pre-season friendly in 2010 and Dortmund were playing Manchester City. Kagawa scored in that game after daintily traipsing his way through the City defence and then he also won a penalty with a sudden burst of pace that caught Gareth Barry napping. His overall play impressed me greatly and it was a case of discovering a hitherto unknown quantity. I knew then he would be a star. And he hasn’t disappointed.”
Wildhagen remembers the “two goals he scored against Schalke in his first Ruhr valley derby [in the 2010/11 season, where Dortmund won 1-3]. He actually told the press before the match that he wanted to score two goals. His excellent performance meant that Schalke were humiliated by their loathed arch rivals in front of their own fans. This is one of my favourite Bundesliga memories from the last couple of seasons, and actually one of the main reasons why Kagawa quickly became a fan favourite.” Wildhagen also tells me that despite missing about half of that season, his first, through injury, he was still a part of the Bundesliga’s Best XI.
As for how Kagawa will fit into Manchester United, a third Fanatic writer/editor, Cristian Nyari, says that there is “no doubt that from a skill point he is very much a ‘United-type’ player.” Kagawa’s presence could help Wayne Rooney; while Rooney had his best season goalscoring-wise, he spent a lot of the second half of the season looking forlorn, and uninspired. He wasn’t necessarily starved of the ball, but appeared to be caught in two minds; almost holding two separate roles as playmaker and chief goal-getter. One worked at the expense of the other. With Kagawa, Rooney’s workload could be said to have halved and that while it did seem for a while that Rooney would prosper closer to the midfield, the last campaign instead showed that he is perhaps better off up the field. Rooney admitted at one point last season that he wasn’t happy with the level of some of his performances (read more here).
“The question for me is how Rooney will be accommodated with Kagawa’s addition because Kagawa is best in a 4-2-3-1 in the hole,” Nyari says. “Will Sir Alex Ferguson keep Rooney and Welbeck up top and if so where will Kagawa fit in? Not that he can’t track back or defend, he has done a lot of that in the Bundesliga, but he is best playing closer to goal. As good as Kagawa is, the 4-4-2 is not an ideal formation for him so Ferguson might have to tweak his formation to suit him which, of course, raises many other questions.
“The quickness with which he adapted to the Bundesliga and Dortmund was astonishing but that was partly the result of [manager] Jurgen Klopp already having the ideal set up for him to just slot into. He had a ball winner and runners playing behind him, a mobile technical striker in front of him and always the right runs from his wide players.” Kagawa arguably has all this at Manchester United. Of course, if he is utilised correctly, United will have a player capable of giving them another dimension in attack, a terrifying talent that could lend fear to a team who badly need a restoration of image to make up for recent shortcomings; those that have watched him play often certainly believe so. Just take their word for it.