Shinji Kagawa’s slump since joining Manchester United is still a mystery

Japan need the former Manchester United midfielder at his best to retain their Asian Cup title, writes Andy Mitten
Shinji Kagawa, left, of Japan controls the ball against Dimitris Salpingidis of Greece during their 2014 Fifa World Cup Group C match at Estadio das Dunas on June 19, 2014, in Natal, Brazil. Jamie McDonald / Getty Images
Shinji Kagawa, left, of Japan controls the ball against Dimitris Salpingidis of Greece during their 2014 Fifa World Cup Group C match at Estadio das Dunas on June 19, 2014, in Natal, Brazil. Jamie McDonald / Getty Images

Shinji Kagawa appeared the perfect signing for Manchester United in 2012. He was a star for back-to-back Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund, one of football’s most exciting teams at the time.

He was young, and being Japanese did no harm to his commercial potential. Playing behind the strikers, his peerless vision added value to a game where he scored and assisted.

He fitted in with the emerging philosophy at Old Trafford that the future should be about quick, diminutive attacking midfielders of the type Alex Ferguson marvelled at when Barcelona destroyed his side in two European Cup finals.

The only surprises were that Kagawa, at €16 million (Dh70.5m), was comparatively cheap compared to other players in his position, and that there were not other major clubs in for him.

This perfect fit soon proved to be not so perfect. Kagawa was inconsistent and injury-prone at Old Trafford.

Ferguson, who bought him, left at the end of his first season and later admitted that he had failed to coax the best from his talent.

Kagawa started the second season weeks behind his teammates after summer exertions with Japan. David Moyes gave him chances, but while he shone against Bayer Leverkusen in United’s most impressive performance of last season in the Uefa Champions League, he was anonymous on league duty at Tottenham Hotspur four days later.

Such inconsistency meant he was not a regular starter and usually not deployed in his preferred central role. He stopped scoring, too.

Much to the dismay of the huge Japanese press corps that followed him everywhere, he failed to score last season.

More than once he returned from the other side of the world jet-lagged and unfit following international games.

Any confidence that Kagawa could reboot his career under Louis van Gaal evaporated after a summer tour to the United States when his manager was frustrated that the player did not do what he asked. He told him in August that he could leave.

Valencia were interested, but Kagawa had other options. His stock remained high in Germany, especially in Dortmund, and their manager, Jurgen Klopp, was delighted to welcome their hero back, especially for €10m cheaper than they sold him for.

Kagawa was Dortmund’s best player at the start of this season. His spark and confidence returned, but he was playing in a faltering side and he began to suffer alongside his out-of-form teammates.

Dortmund are 17th in an 18-team league, a major surprise, and one goal separates them from bottom-of-the-table Freiburg, with Dortmund’s style and tactics copied by other teams – to their own cost.

Kagawa’s goals still are not coming; he has been substituted in eight of his 11 starts and has started three of the past four games from the bench.

He is still a starter for Japan, and the form of the 2011 Asian Cup winners has been good: they have beaten World Cup finalists Honduras 6-0 and Australia 2-1 in their past two friendlies.

Pre-tournament form can be misleading. Japan won five matches ahead of Brazil, including against Belgium and Costa Rica, yet they were poor in the finals.

They need Kagawa at his best to retain the Asian title, but he has not been at that level since 2012, for reasons that remain hard to fathom.

sports@thenational.ae

Follow us on Twitter at @SprtNationalUAE

Published: January 4, 2015 04:00 AM

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