“Little by little, the Japanese have started to find their identity.” These comments were made by former attacking midfielder Dragan Stojkovic in the September 2011 edition of The Blizzard. The Champions League winner spent eight seasons with Nagoya Grampus before returning to manage them in 2008 – either way; Stojkovic is very well qualified to comment on the development of the Japanese game.
Yet did he know his comments would be further validated by one Japanese attacking midfielder in particular.
Though with Shinji Kagawa’s incredible rise, as he’s now a Manchester United player, it’s perhaps best to remove the “little by little” part of this quote. After all, “Little by Little,” was a song by Manchester City-loving band Oasis. That only reached No.2 in the charts – a position United held at the end of last season in the Premier League.
It’s not something Kagawa has been accustomed to of late. During his two years in Germany with Borussia Dortmund, he finished both seasons as a Champion. Still, Kagawa’s rise to prominence hasn’t been nearly as fluid as his on-field play would suggest.
In fact, in 2009, he was playing for Cerezo Osaka in the second division of Japanese football. According to Nick Bidwell in World Soccer, “he was no standout in Japan.” The fact only 11 of his 125 league games were in the J-League, the top tier of Japanese football, seems to have contributed to this. That’s not to say he didn’t excel in his Cerezo Osaka career as a total of 55 goals suggests.
However, the former Hamburg striker Naohiro Takahara alerted the well-connected German agent Thomas Kroth, who was already operating in Japan, to bring about Kagawa’s move to Europe. Takahara told World Soccer in February last year that: “All the lad needed was someone in Europe to take a chance on him. I knew he’d respond well,”
How right the Japanese striker was.
Borussia Dortmund were the team to take a chance on Kagawa, a €350,000 gamble to be exact.
By modern standards, the fee was low but as Uli Hesse reveals: “Ahead of the 2010 season, Kagawa insisted on a get-out clause for Europe and had this modest sum written into his contract. This is clearly one man who trusts himself and his talent.”
Judging by the success of his two years with Borussia Dortmund, Kagawa’s confidence wasn’t misplaced. In his first season in North Rhine-Westphalia, the attacking midfielder scored eight and assisted once in 18 Bundesliga appearances.
Due to an ankle injury at the 2011 Asia Cup (which he won with Japan), he missed all but the final four minutes of Dortmund’s second half of the season. This didn’t prevent him from being named in the 2010 /2011 Bundesliga Team of the Year, or from becoming a Bundesliga Champion in his maiden season.
It would be in 2011/2012 where the ambitious character of Kagawa would shine through as he played an integral role in Dortmund’s first ever league and cup double. In the Bundesliga, he netted 13 times and grabbed 12 assists too. Most importantly for the sake of his career though was his performance in the DFB-Pokal Final.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s scouts in Germany must have given the Manchester United boss enough evidence to show him why he should sign Kagawa prior to the German Cup Final. Ferguson though obviously wanted to see the attacking midfielder in the flesh and observe how he dealt with a big occasion. And in Berlin on May the 12th, Ferguson would have been convinced as the Scot would have witnessed the range of talents at the Japanese’s disposal.
How his agility and acceleration terrified the Bayern back line. How impressive his range of passing was inside the final third. How composed he was when a chance arose.
Not only did Borussia Dortmund run out 5-2 winners, Kagawa netted the opener, a rather simple side foot finish, and created BVB’s third, a delightful reverse ball through to Lewandowski, who went on to score a hat-trick.
As far as final games of the season go, for both Dortmund and Shinji Kagawa, it was superb.
Sir Alex Ferguson had seen enough too. Less than a month later, Manchester United had agreed a deal to take Kagawa to Old Trafford with a fee believed to be around £17 million.
Even though other Japanese players such as Keisuke Honda are doing well in Europe, in just two seasons, Kagawa has superseded them with his performances and in the process, become his country’s premier player.
There’s nothing to say he can’t reproduce his form from the last two years in the Premier League if the success of former Bundesliga players such as Papiss Demba Cissé and Gylfi Sigurdsson is anything to go by.
Next season, Kagawa will also be the first man from Japan to play for Manchester United. If, as Dragan Stojkovic said, the Japanese have started to find their identity, then Shinji Kagawa surely forms a large part of it.
Don’t be surprised if you see tabloid headlines such as “SHINTILLATING” next season.
For Shinji Kagawa isn’t here to make up the numbers.
Article orginally written @ Gone With The Rhind
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