One of the most talented players of his country’s generation, Shinji Kagawa’s transfer to Sir Alex Ferguson’s mighty Manchester United in 2012 represented far more than just football.
The most high profile Japanese transfer in Premier League history, Kagawa’s move might have had the cynics around the world murmuring about shirt sales and untapped foreign markets, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
Shinji Kagawa was one of Europe’s most talented, if somewhat undervalued, talents going into 2011/12, his campaign prior to his move to Manchester. It had been the Japanese talisman’s second season with future-Liverpool manager and legend Jurgen Klopp and the Black and Yellow German outfit of Borussia Dortmund, where he had established himself as easily amongst the world’s best…
Statistics on the 2011/12 Borussia Dortmund season will tell you that Shinji Kagawa played a total of 43 games in all competitions for the Black and Yellow, netting 17 goals (including one in the DFP Pokal final against Bayern Munich) and lifting both the Bundesliga title and the domestic DFP Pokal.
Deployed mainly as an outright ‘no.10’ behind the already-then brilliant strikeforce of Robert Lewandowski, Kagawa’s dexterity on the ball and overall agility with or without it made him one of Dortmund’s most vital instruments.
Along with the likes of Mario Gotze and Ilkay Gundogan, Kagawa shone as one of the most routinely impressive forces of creativity found anywhere on the continent. It was also his discipline off the pitch and well-respected level of professionalism that surely would have made someone like Sir Alex Ferguson a potential fan.
The Dream Signing — 2012/13
Shinji Kagawa might have been at the top of his game during the 2011/12 season, however his soon-to-be new club were anything but. For the first time since the 2004/05 season, United had ended a season without a single trophy to their name. They had been knocked out of the Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup, League Cup and were denied the Premier League title by mere seconds by arch-rivals Manchester City.
Kagawa would begin his Manchester United career on the opening day of the season, playing the whole match as United slumped to a 1–0 loss to future manager David Moyes’ Everton. He would soon find better times however, scoring a close range tap-in on his home debut in a 1–0 win against Fulham.
His skillsets would really come to the fold in that season’s Champions League, with Kagawa providing vital assists in United’s group stage fixtures against Galatasary and Braga for Michael Carrick and Javier Hernandez respectively.
Undoubtedly Kagawa’s highlight for Manchester United would come back in the Premier League however, registering the first ever hattrick scored by an Asian player against Norwich City in March 2013, a result that saw Ferguson’s side go 15 points clear at the top of the table.
Kagawa became the first Japanese player to ever win the Premier League during United’s 3–0 win over Aston Villa, the Red Devils’ 13th and latest title under Ferguson. The final appearances for Kagawa’s debut campaign would come in United’s final two games of the season. He played the full ninety minutes in United’s final home game against Swansea and would score in the season-closing 5–5 thriller against West Brom.
The Decline — 2013/14
Much like Robin Van Persie, Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement at the end of the season had come as a shock to Kagawa, who wasn’t aware of the Scot’s impending retirement when he signed for the club initially.
Given the elegance, calmness and creativity demonstrated by Kagawa in a reasonably successful debut campaign for the Red Devils, it was a shame to see such a talismanic player performing with seemingly the weight of the world on his shoulders.
It became increasingly clear during the 2013/14 season as United fell further and further down the table that under-fire manager David Moyes was a.) incapable of unlocking talismanic figures (see: Nani and Wilf Zaha) and b.) in desperate need of hardworking grafters.
Though his appearances across the season actually rose to 30 in all competitions, his goal tally dropped from 6 in his first outing, to 0 across 2013/14.
Despite the poor return on the pitch and increasing lack of playtime, even with the eventual sacking of Moyes in April 2014, most United fans had seen enough class in their Japanese talisman to leave them wanting to give him another shot.
Return To Dortmund
Unlike most flops in the footballing world, Shinji Kagawa isn’t doubted by most Manchester United fans as being a bad player unsuited to the stresses and styles of the Premier League; nor is he regarded as a work-shy, disinterested professional. Most in Manchester still regard him fondly as a true professional of the game and are saddened by the fact that his time in England wasn’t as successful as it probably should have been.
Undoubtedly the best Japanese footballing export since the days of Nakamura at Celtic, Kagawa enjoyed a few more fruitful years back at Borussia Dortmund following his two year stay at United, reuniting with Jurgen Klopp for the 2014/15 season and remaining at Dortmund until the 2018/19 campaign.
Kagawa now plys his trade with Spanish Segunda side Real Zaragoza aged 30, still boasting all the traits that made him one of European football’s most dearly respected individuals nearly a decade ago now.