A few months ago, before the Champions League final, Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp expressed his agony at seeing the Japanese ace, ex-Dortmund midfielder Shinji Kagawa play in the left wing at Manchester United for just 20 minutes every game. Though he may have exaggerated a bit, many of the supporters feel the same about Kagawa and the lack of playing time he was given last season.
He was signed for a fee of 17.5m on a four-year deal from the then champions Borussia Dortmund, a steal for a player who had an excellent first half of the 2011-12 season. He even earned himself a place in the Bundesliga’s best XI that season. He arrived in Manchester with all the hype surrounding him, and many of us were excited about signing a genuinely gifted, technically good midfielder after a long time.
He did seem to live up to the bill, initially. He scored a goal against Shenghai Shenhua in the pre-season. He made his full league debut against Everton, playing the entire game in United’s opener. Unfortunately, we lost 1-0, thanks to a Fellaini-inspired win for Everton. He scored a goal off a rebound in his first home debut against Fulham last season, which was largely overshadowed by Van Persie’s fantastic half-volley the same day.
Kagawa was given his first Champions League start as United played against Galatasaray. He provided an assist for the winning goal scored by Michael Carrick in a narrow 1–0 win. He then set up Javier Hernandez’s goal against SC Braga on 23rd october, a game which we won in a typical Manchester United fashion scoring 3 goals after being two goals down early in the game. He got his knee twisted the same game and was sidelined for the next two months.
The injury definitely seemed to have had an effect on him. And this was the time when Sir Alex kept believing in the Japanese midfielder, covering him up during the press conferences, saying he needed time to adapt to the physicality of the Premier League. And yes, Shinji did need some time to adapt to the league and its reknowned physicality. And this was the time when Manchester United were head and shoulders above the other teams in the league, so nobody really seemed to worry about Kagawa’s prolonged absence and the supposed drop in form. And then the day arrived. On 2 March 2013, Kagawa scored his first hat-trick for United and also became the first Asian player to score a hat-trick in the Premier League. He played an excellent game that day, a game to remember against the Canaries. Not to forget, Norwich City enjoyed a string of unbeaten games too, includes the win against us and against Arsenal at home.
On 22 April, Kagawa played a part in the title-winning match against Aston Villa in which United won 3–0. He became the first Japanese player to win a Premier League title. And one more memorable man of the match performance of his was that game against West Ham. He showed he has the composure at the tightest of situations. On 12 May, Kagawa was included in the United squad to play against Swansea City in Sir Alex’s last home game before retirement, which United won 2–1. On the same day, Kagawa received his Premier League medal and was voted Man of the Match. On 19 May, Kagawa played in a 5–5 thriller against West Bromwich Albion, scoring United’s first goal with a header.
In terms of collective trophies, Kagawa has been immensely successful winning three back-to-back league titles in two different countries. But on an individual front, it is safe to say he hasn’t been able to replicate his Dortmund performances at Manchester United, the performances that spurred us to sign the player himself. He knows that. He knows he has more to offer. He has even promised to do so next season when he said in an interview with MUTV,
[quote]I’m not satisfied so far, but then I am always very critical of my own performances. Even worse, though, I got injured. I had to go through the frustrations that come with getting injured in my first season with the team. Now I’m just doing my best to catch up on what I have missed. There’s a lot of pressure when you play for this club, but all I can do at the moment is keep working hard every day to bring out the best in me. I’m confident my hard work will pay off.[/quote]
The realisation is there and so is the expectation to deliver. Will he stand up and deliver this time around? I say yes.