Could £17m Kagawa be the bargain of the summer?
When an English team signs an Asian player, you can put your mortgage on the fact that shirt sales will be cited as a potential motivation. It’s a tedious cliche, even if there has doubtless been some truth in it on occasion. To suggest that Manchester United bought Shinji Kagawa with shirt sales in mind, however, is a grave insult to the sparkling brilliance of a player who – even at around £17m – could be the bargain of the summer.
Man Utd’s new signing was certainly the bargain of the summer two years ago. Kagawa, then 21, was an unknown player who had not been included in Japan’s World Cup squad when Borussia Dortmund paid just under £300,000 to sign him from Cerezo Osaka. His impact was instant. In September his team-mate at Dortmund, Nuri Sahin, now with Real Madrid, said: “The boy plays like an angel.”
Kagawa was a key part of Borussia Dortmund’s back-to-back titles in his two years at the club. In his debut season he was included in the Bundesliga team of the year, despite missing half of the campaign through injury; in 2011-12, when he scored 17 and made 13 for Dortmund, he was chosen in the prestigious European Sports Media team of the season ahead of Andrés Iniesta and David Silva, among others.
Kagawa is at his best in the hole behind the striker, but he has also been extremely effective playing from the left in a 4-2-3-1 formation. He will introduce pace, penetration and urgency to a Manchester United attack that was startlingly ponderous at times last season, although there is much more to his game than blistering speed.
René Meulensteen, the United first-team coach, says Kagawa has the “complete package” for an attacking midfielder. He is two-footed and has an excellent one-touch game; he has impressive awareness, peripheral vision and imagination, and invariably chooses the right option in possession, with a particular eye for a devastating through-pass; he can beat players with a body swerve or a rapid change of pace.
There is also a hint of arrogance in his play – the good kind: Kagawa is temperamentally sound, the personification of determination and utterly indefatigable. He was born in 1989, the year of the snake; he says such people are “very driven, hate failure and don’t mind hardship”. His Japanese team-mate Keisuke Honda says he is “the perfect player for a world-class team”.
He could be the perfect player for Wayne Rooney. Although Rooney had his most productive season in terms of goals in 2011-12, scoring 35, the exhilarating creativity with which we traditionally associate him was not always in evidence. At times, he almost seemed bored. He looked like a man in need of a muse, which is where Kagawa comes in. Rooney is open in his love of Antonio Valencia, but his impact is largely on Rooney’s goal-scoring, the relatively mundane side of the job. Kagawa has the capacity to reignite Rooney’s inventiveness.
Rooney could also play as a No9 in front of Kagawa. There is one further possibility. Talk of Rooney leaving United has never totally gone away since he went public with his dissatisfaction in 2010, and in the long term Kagawa might even be his replacement. Sir Alex Ferguson’s chilling ruthlessness in disposing of established stars was legendary even before Glazernomics placed such demands on his transfer policy.
Kagawa is fiercely ambitious and says he wants to play in the hole for United. “I feel like that’s where I play my best football,” he said recently. “I plan on working hard so I can win my place at the position.” That’s quite a statement to make given the current incumbent in that position, but Shinji Kagawa has a habit of getting what he wants – even if it’s the shirt off Wayne Rooney’s back.
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