Shinji Kagawa: Back In The Saddle Again

To say Shinji Kagawa’s once meteoric rise to the top of the world game hit something of an impasse would be an understatement.

Having been plucked from relative obscurity by Cerezo Osaka at the age of 17, the Hyoga native became the first Japanese player ever to sign a professional contract prior to leaving secondary education.

While his virtuoso performances were not enough to lift Osaka from the mire of the J-League’s second tier, his 57 goals in 127 appearances didn’t go unnoticed. Indeed, Borussia Dortmund’s precocious new manager Jurgen Klopp had long since earmarked him as a potentially key cog in his BVB revolution.

Klopp ultimately made his move in the summer of 2010, purchasing the then 20-year-old for a mere £280,000.

Not only did Kagawa star for the German giants in their consecutive title successes during his two seasons at the club, he was also named in the Bundesliga’s Best XI for both campaigns.

His swift vault up the rungs of the footballing ladder seemed nigh-on complete when he swapped the north-west of Germany for the north-west of England in 2012, making a much heralded move from Dortmund to Manchester United. The fee tipped the scales somewhere in excess of fifty times that which had initially taken him to Europe.

While Kagawa would go on to bag another league medal during his maiden Premier League season, his contribution to this particular title-winning side was altogether less pronounced. Although ostensibly signed by Sir Alex Ferguson as the heir apparent to an unsettled Wayne Rooney, the common consensus was that Kagawa failed to justify that billing during the opening stanza of his United career.

Scintillating displays against Premier League also-rans too regularly gave way to modest displays in crunch ties. His ineffectiveness during Manchester United’s match at the Bernabeu, for one, seemed to almost border on disinterest.

These ‘little boy lost’ routines were, however, put down to first-season inconsistency for the most part, a plight commonly endured by top continental players adjusting to the robust British game.

His ability, it appeared, was never in question. Whether or not he had the temperament to impose his talent at the highest level was very much the point of contention.

In the end, his failure to hold down a first-team place in the most threadbare Manchester United squad of recent memory was a damning indictment.

David Moyes’ decision to renew Rooney’s contract to the tune of £300,000 a week, coupled with the arrival of Juan Mata, meant his fate was all but secured before Louis van Gaal had even darkened the Carrington door in July 2014. A month later, he returned to Dortmund with his tail between his legs.

The blame game from those in the Kagawa camp began in earnest. After all, this was not the first time United had been seen to bust a flush.

Juan Sebastian Veron was an Argentinian international of global renown when Ferguson shelled out a then English record £28.1m for his services in 2001. His peerless performances in the 1998 World Cup, together with his similarly stellar contribution to Lazio’s double-winning side of 2000, meant United were deemed to be betting on a sure thing.

Although the man dubbed La Brujita (‘the little witch’) produced some spellbinding moments in red, his attempts to reconcile the intricacy of his game with the hustle and bustle of the Premier League were unsuccessful for the most part.

As such, Ferguson opted to cut his losses, pawning the one-time jewel in his crown off to emerging rivals Chelsea in 2003.

In addition to Veron, equally telling comparisons can be drawn between Kagawa and another South-American, Diego Forlan.

Despite the fact that his arrival in the Premier League evoked considerably less hype, the powers that be at the club had seemingly lined up a similarly lofty trajectory for the Uruguayan. Regrettably for Forlan, he endured an inauspicious stretch in front of goal akin to that of another former Old Trafford underachiever, Garry Birtles.

The latter signed for United in 1980 off the back of a prolific spell with Nottingham Forest, but achieved a goal-to-game ratio of less than one in five during his much maligned two-season stint in Manchester. Forlan measured even lowlier in the goal-scoring stakes; he netted just 17 times in 97 appearances.

Like Birtles, who upon his return to Forest won two European Cups, Forlan only truly fulfilled his potential after leaving United.

Along with picking up both the Spanish and European Golden Boots on two separate occasions following on from his departure, Forlan also proceeded to represent his country with distinction. 2010 saw him well-nigh single-handedly guide Uruguay to the World Cup semi-finals, a feat for which he was voted Player of the Tournament.

With all this in mind, for both Kagawa and United it may yet again prove to have been a case of the right player at the wrong time.

Despite an injury-plagued homecoming to Signal Iduna Park last term, shoots of life have been readily apparent at the start of this. The 26-year-old has spearheaded Dortmund’s return to the summit of the Bundesliga, personifying the dynamic pressing and possession-based attacking style expounded by new manager Thomas Tuchel.

Forewarned is forearmed, however. And while the top brass in North Rhine-Westphalia are unlikely to get unduly carried away, Kagawa could be forgiven for doing just that.

It has, after all, been a long road for the Japan international, and after ups and downs aplenty, it seems he has finally turned the corner.

Ronan Mullen

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