Last season’s #FreeShinji campaign, started by Borussia Dortmund fans in protest of their former player’s misuse/lack of use at Manchester United was about as effective as an umbrella in a hurricane in terms of productivity, but it did get people thinking about Shinji Kagawa’s stuttering tenure at Old Trafford since his move from Germany in 2012.
Few would argue that the Japanese had an easy time of it last season under David Moyes but after two years, the fact that Kagawa as failed to nail down a starting position despite his clear talent should be cause for concern with Louis van Gaal now firmly in charge.
At this stage, there’s no strong sense of where Kagawa’s future lies. True, there’s no substantial evidence to suggest that he’s been put up for sale but there’s no sense, at least at present, that he could become an integral cog in this coming season. As has been reported, Van Gaal will be making quick decisions on the future of a number of squad members deemed unsuitable or surplus to requirements and Kagawa would be unwise to consider himself safe from such a fate.
If that is the case, there will be a certain amount of misfortune surround his departure. For a start, Kagawa was purchased in the pre-Robin van Persie landscape, with Sir Alex Ferguson almost certainly intending to utilise him behind Wayne Rooney before the talismanic striker arrived and dashed those hopes indefinitely. His debut season was hardly shambolic and a hat-trick against Norwich City in March of last year pointed to a burgeoning understanding with Rooney, but performances like this have been exceptions to a rather disappointing rule.
The Japanese playmaker has an army of fierce supporters who all vociferously claim his misuse out wide blunts his ability to affect games and to a certain extent, that’s true. Force any player away from their natural position and they may well struggle to be as effective. Problem is that an inability to adapt to the situation last season cost him games; he offered neither the work rate nor the delivery that was needed and whilst Moyes’ mismanagement of Kagawa’s talents made for a difficult campaign, it’s hardly the best advert for the incoming Dutchman that the player seemingly wilted as opposed to adjusting his game.
Should Van Gaal decide that Kagawa is to be retained, then some hard work will be needed in order for him to succeed at the club. Atop his to-do list has to be an increased and visible desire to adapt to whatever plans the manager has for him. If that means playing wide in a 4-3-3 or on the wing in a 4-4-2, then he’ll have to make the most of it. Van Gaal has tried Kagawa in the No.8 and No.6 but does feel he plays better in his natural No.10 role.
Kagawa needs to work hard, be energetic and show some desire. Also, he has to make a greater contribution to the team going forward. Last season’s complete lack of goals and brace of assists will not cut it in this new landscape and if Kagawa wants to avoid the bench then he has to make sure his contributions on the pitch are sufficient. Neither Wayne Rooney or Juan Mata were in sparkling form last season but the Spaniard, despite arriving in January, adjusted to his surroundings quickly and offered a far greater impact in a fraction of the time his counterpart has. Kagawa has, at this point, yet to respond.
The notion that the former Dortmund man requires a team to be built around him to fully prosper isn’t without merit and in practice, a 17-goal haul in his final season in Dortmund proves just how well he can be utilised if everything falls into place, but therein lies the problem. United won’t offer that level of accommodation. The club has better, more effective options to play behind the striker and it has harder-working wingers that won’t sell their wing-backs short.
The classic example was a visible sacrifice of Alex Buttner down the left wing in Moyes’ last game in charge at Goodison Park. In that sense, a return to the club that played to his strengths so well seems to a perfect suggestion. Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp, having openly lamented Kagawa’s utilisation out wide, would surely jump at the chance to be reunited with the playmaker and given United’s reported interest in Mats Hummels, the notion of a player swap with around £15/20m on top could be difficult for the Germans to ignore.
At present, it’s impossible to know for sure what Van Gaal plans to do with this side. No one knows how many more players will leave or who is on their way. In the short-term, Kagawa has jetted out to America with the first team squad for their pre-season tour so all appears well on the surface, but the doubts surrounding his future at United will not go away easily.
With the season’s beginning now in sight, Kagawa now faces a stark reality – he’ll either be sold, having suffered from a modicum of bad luck but ultimately having failed to live up to his billing, or be retained and asked to fill a role that won’t be his first choice.
If the former eventuality plays out, then he can have few complaints but if he remains a United player by the time the transfer window shuts in September, here’s hoping he’s aware of the very real need to up his game, because the club’s new taskmaster is unlikely to carry passengers.