With the Premier League’s final run in now well under way, Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa looks set to finish his debut season at Old Trafford with not only a winner’s medal, but a whole realm of warm goodwill to boot.
You’ll find few supporters who have anything in the way of a bad thing to say about their Japanese superstar and the general consensus in the red half of Manchester, is that the recently turned 24-year-old has enjoyed a solid start to life within English football.
And when he has played, it’s felt incredibly difficult to argue with that. Technically gifted with an outstanding eye for a pass, the way in which the ex-Borussia Dortmund man plays football is incredibly easy on the eye and his recent hat-trick in the 4-0 win against Norwich City, displayed exactly what he’s capable of when at his devastating best.
The only problem, however, is that we’ve not seen Kagawa at his devastating best particularly often this season. In fact, over the course of the campaign, we’ve barely seen him at all.
With only 11 starts and two substitute appearances in the league this term, Kagawa has only made three more than the minimum ten showings you need to qualify for a Premier League winners medal. Having made a mere 18 appearances in all competitions, we’ve perhaps only learned marginally more about the talented midfielder, than we did before he first left the Bundesliga.
It does however speak volumes about the impact that he’s had with the Old Trafford faithful, that despite a debut campaign that’s been largely ravaged by injury – most prominently a twisted knee picked up against Braga in October that kept him out for two months – his initial £12million acquisition from Dortmund has been deemed a relative success.
But while he remains a prodigiously talented attacking outlet, he still resembles something of an enigmatic presence within this United side and one that perhaps Sir Alex Ferguson is yet to truly figure out.
His initial showings within English football at the start of the season, were understandably a mixed bag. As high as expectations were following his summer arrival, those that were left slightly puzzled at Kagawa’s inability to produce the goods from the off, were maybe being a little unrealistic in their demands.
The Kobe-born star remains in the process of adapting to the rigors of English football and back in October, he was keen to remind supporters that he was working hard to do his bit in smoothing the transition, telling The Independent: “I’ve realised that I need to limber up and strengthen my body trunk,” as he liked to put it.
Despite continuing to offer brilliance in short bursts, rather than sustained periods, Kagawa has slowly looked a more comfortable component within Ferguson’s side, even if his mid-season injury lay off represented a huge disruption in his adaptation.
But after carrying on from where he left off, since Kagawa’s return from injury, while his individual performances have begun to look a lot less puzzling, his presence remains an enigmatic puzzle piece within the overall collective at Old Trafford.
Because fitting his talents within a side that include both Robin van Persie but most prominently, Wayne Rooney, has proved a difficult prospect at the very least and one that still doesn’t look closer to reaching a permanent solution any time soon.
When Kagawa has played in his favoured position as the No10 behind Robin van Persie, that’s when we’ve tended to see the very best out of him, although the role behind the Dutchman just so happens to be the one in which Rooney also looks most comfortable. Ferguson’s managerial skills may well be peerless within the game, but fitting two into one is a feat that even the Scot may well find a bridge too far.
Kagawa’s fitness issues seem to have swept the issue under the carpet for large parts of the season but within recent weeks, it’s becoming increasingly impossible to ignore. With Van Persie a seeming lock-in up in attack and the flirtations with a diamond midfield now consigned to recent history, there’s only room for one behind the ex-Arsenal man.
The trend for much of the season when Kagawa and Rooney have been playing together, has been to shift the one not playing centrally out on the left hand side. But while Kagawa has perhaps suffered more when played out wide, he’s also arguably looked far more effective than the Englishman when he’s got the nod as the No10.
And it was during the most memorable moment of Kagawa’s short United career so far, that Ferguson may have finally found the best way of cracking his Japanese enigma; but the answer isn’t one without difficult ramifications.
After a first 45 in which Rooney found himself playing centrally against Norwich City, it was when the ex-Everton striker swapped placed with Kagawa, that we really saw what United’s mercurial summer signing had to offer. Kagawa was absolutely magnificent playing in the archetypal playmaker role and despite the questionable quality of the opposition, he arguably looked like the best fit that United have had in that position in months – maybe even all season.
The problem for Manchester United is that for as potentially brilliant as Kagawa may be, exuding the very best performance out of him in the long term is going to have to come at the cost of pushing Wayne Rooney even further away from goal and for as polarising as he may continue to be, that remains an extremely difficult decision to make indeed.
But with Rooney no longer looking bulletproof within this United side, the prospect of Kagawa securing a central role for himself might not be so distant after all.
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