Manchester United had only the highest hopes when they decided to bring in Japanese star Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund after the playmaker was named Dortmund’s best player in 2011/12. Forming a lethal attacking trio with the emerging Marco Reus and Mario Gotze at Borussia Dortmund, Kagawa was believed to be one of the best players in his position in the world and was considered a bargain-buy for United. Like many of his nation, playing for United was a dream that rarely would be fulfilled, and Kagawa became the idol for thousands of young Japanese footballers, selling the third-most football jerseys at Manchester United behind Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie during his time at the club. Looking excellent at times for United, Kagawa will regret never finding a consistent run of football, because it cost him his United career, but many argue he was never given a fair shake.
Kagawa, a playmaker at Borussia Dortmund, was known most for his clinically technical football, never misplacing a pass, making the correct decisions and offering a spark of brilliance. Shortly after joining United, though, difficulty arose with the signing of Robin van Persie, because the Dutchman became available, and Kagawa became one of the many players looking for a position in the side. When van Persie joined, Ferguson’s plans inevitably changed, but his words about Kagawa when he signed would suggest he still had a plan for the Japanese playmaker.
“Shinji is an exciting young midfielder with great skill, vision and a good eye for goal. 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. We are all looking forward to working with him.”
As it became progressively clearer that there were problems between Wayne Rooney and Sir Alex Ferguson, the matter could undoubtedly be attributed to the prospect of Kagawa playing behind van Persie. Kagawa did a great job and had a very bright spell playing as the first-choice attacking midfielder, too, until Rooney managed to steal the spotlight again. To be fair, though, Kagawa’s numbers still show little dominance; he scored just six goals and assisted six in 26 appearances, including a famous hat-trick against Norwich City. The next problem came with his position.
“I want to play (in the hole). I feel like that’s where I play my best football. I plan on working hard so I can win my place at the position.”
Kagawa is right; he certainly plays best as the advanced midfielder in a three, or more traditionally a number 10 creative role. But when David Moyes joined United, he decided to play Wayne Rooney in attacking midfield and Kagawa became a regular on the left for United, unable to perform from that position, and the signing of Juan Mata all but spelled the end for United’s once promising signing. The Red Devils tried to use him in a front trio alongside Mata and Rooney, but it failed tremendously, with Ashley Young unable to provide the only source of width on the side.
Jurgen Klopp was willing to offer Kagawa a place back at Borussia Dortmund, and it seemed the right move for a player who became the best he could be in Germany. Kagawa’s first season at Dortmund was underwhelming, too, as the playmaker only earned six goals and 10 assists in 39 appearances back in Germany. Kagawa, once a great prospect, was looking like he would struggle to ever hit the heights he managed in his first stint at Dortmund again. But much like United’s exciting new signing, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Kagawa exploded to life under Thomas Tuchel.
Finally earning a respectable tally of 13 goals and 13 assists, Kagawa was included in the Bundesliga team of the season alongside Reus and Mkhitaryan, and he continues to be a regular for Thomas Tuchel’s progressive Dortmund side. Kagawa’s adventures at United can teach us a lesson, too- it is okay to chase our dreams and achieve them, but ultimately, we need to work towards a realistic goal. Kagawa was able to recognize that United wasn’t for him, and he rebuilt his career successfully- in this situation, United can leave with no regrets, and hopefully Kagawa can too.