Shinji Kagawa: the journey and the road ahead

Manchester United v Wigan Athletic - FA Community Shield

Shinji Kagawa

Shinji Kagawa is maybe the polar opposite of a Mario Balotelli or a Cristiano Ronaldo.

He lacks the egotistical self-eulogizing and needy shenanigans that one has come to expect and accept from the stars and the superstars of the bloviated multi-million dollar football leagues today.

He doesn’t wear anything outrageous to make idiosyncratic fashion statements, has no tattoo on his body, doesn’t do much with his hair, doesn’t wear quirky studs and also is a no-show amongst the razzle-dazzle bigwigs in the celebrity circuits of Manchester.

He’s surprisingly earthly for a player who plays for the biggest and most successful club in England, a team that dominated the league en route to winning its 20th Championship.

What did Shinji have to say about that? – “It was a tough time for me with a lot going on in my head. I am not happy with my performance for the team at all. I didn’t score that much and I also had my injury. Despite that, it was great we won the league; I just don’t feel that I achieved everything that I wanted. For me personally, it wasn’t a good season.”

And that is all the quintessential blue-collared and excessively self-critical oriental artist took from the season.

To many, he was being, quite unjustly, too harsh on himself. He didn’t start the season too well, which is not an anomaly for a new player in the powerful and physical English league.

He did bear the pressure of being a ₤17 million signing, the English club’s marquee signing for the season and a player that the legendary and sagacious Sir Alex had scouted and courted extensively.

To Sir Alex, he was the missing piece of the puzzle, the player who could do the seamless link-up between the boisterous strike-force of Rooney and the languid and industrious Carrick who despite excelling in pulling the strings from deep, wasn’t quite the driving force in midfield.

Kagawa, to him, was the midfield maestro who could add the vital goals from midfield, someone who could compare with the best creative midfielders of the game.

Till then, Van Persie’s deal was yet not done, and in those circumstances, Shinji Kagawa seemed destined to have a hugely successful season. Bryan Robson stated that Sir Alex and his staff had actually chosen Kagawa over Hazard, a bold move considering their contrasting first seasons, the money involved and the humongous difference in salary demands.

Was it the right choice? Sir Alex believed that it was, and anybody who has followed the game long enough would know better than to question the wisdom of Sir Alex. Sir Alex said about Kagawa, “I am delighted he has chosen to come to United. I believe he will make an impact upon the team very quickly as he is suited to United’s style of play.”

The dynamics did take an unprecedented turn when Van Persie was signed by United. Kagawa, who had revelled at Dortmund playing the role of a trequartista, and featured in the Bundesliga team of the year for two years in a row, now faced the possibility of jostling for the same role with the likes of Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck.

Kagawa did have an easy start to his United career, as with Wayne Rooney still struggling through injuries and Welbeck still not established in the team, he started in most of the fixtures, until an injury in October derailed his run. But in all the games he featured, Sir Alex tried his best to give him a prominent role and tried to merge him into the set-up as soon as he could.

In the early exchanges, Kagawa’s superfluous skill and vision were apparent, as he displayed a wide array of one-twos, mesmerizing flicks and eloquent touches on the ball, and intelligent runs off it.

He maybe didn’t cope well with the pace and the physicality of the English game, but more often than not, he made do with his insuperable intellect and exquisite ball-control. My very first memory of Kagawa in a United shirt is the epitome of the same.

 

It was the first game of the season, away against Everton: the game where Fellini tormented and tortured a hapless United defence, and a certain Robin Van Persie struggled to mesh into the set-up.

Everton v Manchester United - Premier League

Shinji Kagawa against Everton

 

It was Kagawa’s first touch in the game, and that was enough to convince me of his credentials and make me a believer. Kagawa collected the ball near the half-line with his back to the goal, turned and was quickly charged down by Heitinga. It seems he had the ball stuck between his feet and Heitinga looked sure to win the ball, when Kagawa nonchantly nutmegged Heitinga, and with his second touch, launched a gorgeous through-ball to Van Persie.

Five seconds, and in those five seconds, you see a combination of supreme skill, rare vision and profound awareness. Sir Alex and company knew that it was money well spent.

The season however wasn’t anywhere close to being as rosy as those five seconds. Struggling with injuries, the physicality of the English game and United’s tendency to add width and operate from the wings meant that Kagawa was no longer in an environment where his skills and pure intellect could help him succeed.

Sir Alex was still patient and featured him in numerous roles, sometimes as a left winger, sometimes as a box to box midfielder while trying to get him maximum minutes as a trequartista. Kagawa did have his moments as he created history by becoming the first Asian player to score a Premier League hat-trick in United’s match against Norwich, or starring in United’s final home game against Swansea.

However, it was nothing close to his 17-goal, 13 assist season for Dortmund. In 22 games, 17 of which he started, he managed to score 6 goals and also notched up 3 assists.

Now, for a player who started in the second division of the Japanese league with Cerezo in Osaka, to get a chance to feature for one of the biggest clubs in the world is a milestone in itself.

Kagawa could have been content with coming this far, enjoyed the status of being quite possibly the most celebrated Asian player, and also paved the path for many other prodigal Asian players. Quite similar to Park Ji-Sung, the much loved and respected United player who many United fans were already identifying Kagawa with.

However, Kagawa is a much different player. He is too self-critical to accept a bits and pieces role, and he is too motivated to just be happy with the player that he is today.

He is sure to try and get stronger, work harder and add some much needed muscles and do everything he can to make himself a better player. And when a player works this hard, it is also important that the manager rewards him for his toils.

This is where the man-management and resource-utilization of David Moyes will be tested. He has openly stated about his admiration for Robin Van Persie and has his task cut-out in keeping Wayne Rooney satisfied and happy at the club.

Further, as the manager of the biggest English club, he has the pressure to ensure that prospective World Cup inclusions like Welbeck and Cleverley get maximum playing time. Moyes also recognizes that the role of the no. 10 can be played effectively by the trio of Kagawa, Rooney and Welbeck. Welbeck had a great game against Swansea, when he slotted in as the supporting striker behind Van Persie. Rooney was arguably the man of the match when he was deployed as the no. 10 against Chelsea.

In such circumstances, Kagawa may never have the opportunity to play in his favoured trequartista role, and amidst such circumstances it is but natural that the likes of Atletico Madrid are making enquiries and the Westfalenstadion faithful are launching the outrageous twitter campaigns.

The first thing that needs to be realized is that Kagawa hasn’t featured yet for United because the fitness staff and Moyes believe that he is still not match-fit and needs some more time to compensate for missing much of the pre-season. David Moyes has actually stated that Kagawa certainly features within his plans, and he is looking forward to him getting match-fit. How big are the plans exactly? Moyes chose to be coy over the same.

However, Moyes needs to realize that Kagawa might actually hold the key to United’s fortunes this season. In the two games so far, Moyes has deployed the 40-year old Giggs and Welbeck on the left wing and neither of the two have looked convincing.

Manchester United v Norwich City - Premier League

Shinji Kagawa

 

Other than the obvious lack of depth in central midfield, the left wing for United sure looks a priority. Zaha and Valencia can share the responsibilities on the right wing, and Moyes also chose to use Young on the right wing against Chelsea. Now, Young can also operate on the left, and so can Nani, but both of these players have been too injury-ridden and inconsistent to claim the left wing.

Kagawa on the other hand, can slot in easily into the role, maybe play similar to how his idol Iniesta plays at Barcelona, linking up with the overlap runs of Evra and also cutting in to hit the banana drives with his right-foot, or play the one-twos with Rooney and Van Persie.

He may not have the pace to beat players and get to the touchline and pepper crosses into the box, but with Evra more than happy to get forward, he may be better served in finding him on easy openings and providing him the space to stretch the defence.

This also allows him to get more of a free role, get some touches in the box, drop down deep to help pull the strings in midfield and swap places with the centre forward to stretch defensive lines and open up stringent defensive teams with his vision and creativity.

 

Add to that his almost 91% pass completion rate with 29% of his passes featuring in the final attacking third, United’s attack can become far more incisive and much better than the sloppy display that the Red Devil exhibited in the final third against Chelsea.

While Kagawa may still wish to play the role of a trequartista, his commitment to the club remains unshaken and he stated that he was ready to play in any position that the manager wants him to play.

The problem with deploying Kagawa on the left wing is maybe the fact that Kagawa is not known for his back-tracking and defensive abilities. He averages one tackle every 90 minutes, and surely lacks the pace or the strength to bother rival players, qualities that Moyes reveres and demands from his players, maybe the greatest reason why he chose Welbeck and Valencia to start against Chelsea.

So, despite all the skills that Kagawa may possess, his lack of defensive intensity may actually be tilting the tide against him.

Now, Moyes would be asinine to expect Kagawa to transform into a James Milner kind of a player, but he for sure won’t like Kagawa to be lackadaisical or languid. This is something that Kagawa for sure needs to work on.

Moyes can tweak his plans and force the central midfield combination of Carrick and Cleverley to rotate and plug the gaps on the left wing when Kagawa is to feature, but despite all their industriousness, they are no Makeleles or Gattusos and thus it is imperative that Kagawa works harder and tracks back on defence.

The noise may be getting louder for Kagawa to look at his option, but for now the player remains committed, and his manager sees him as an integral part of his plans.

The season might be a make-or-break deal for Kagawa, but one can be assured that if given a chance, the hard working Oriental wizard will do all he can to prove his worth.

As a believer and a fan, I can only hope that the chance comes sooner rather than later.

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