Like all good Hollywood love stories, those who are meant to be find their way back to each other in the end. Shinji Kagawa’s return to Borussia Dortmund certainly had that feeling to it and, as the images of Jurgen Klopp and his beaming Japanese playmaker appeared on social media yesterday, it was difficult not to return a smile.
Kagawa is now back at Signal Iduna Park, back where he’s supposed to be - and where, inevitably, he will thrive again.
One can easily guess at the assumptions that will be made about Kagawa’s time in England, and in the forthcoming obituaries of his Premier League career you can expect to read cliched explanations of his failure to transition into English football. He’ll be portrayed as the waif-like playmaker who lacked the durability for our fiercely physical game and, presumably in the more xenophobic corners of the media, doubts will be cast over Manchester United’s motivations for signing him.
This was no commercial asset, though, so leave the assumptions regularly associated with Asian players at the door - Kagawa was, and still is, a top-tier playmaker who was simply the victim of circumstance.
The Japanese arrived in England in June 2012 and was signed on the back of his brilliant contribution to Dortmund’s double-winning season in 11/12. Kagawa, with no sense of hyperbole, was sensational during that period and as a pure number ten behind Robert Lewandowski - and flanked by Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kevin Großkreutz - he was deployed in manner that suited his skill-set to perfection. Surrounded by players who could both run beyond and interact with him, Kagawa’s blend of vision and creativity became an integral part of what made that Dortmund side so exhilarating to watch.
In 2011/12, Manchester United had suffered the ignominy of both losing the Premier League title to Sergio Aguero’s stoppage-time goal against QPR and being eliminated in the Champions League group stage. Retrospectively, it was an underwhelming squad who, in the league at least, probably over-achieved by running Manchester City so close. Beyond an ageing Paul Scholes in the middle of the pitch and a relatively productive wing-pairing of Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia, the side was really propped-up by Wayne Rooney’s 27 Premier League goals, and the emphasis that Summer was subsequently on recruiting someone who could not only provide the creativity to help sustain Rooney’s form, but who would also operate efficiently between the midfield and the forward-line.
Shinji Kagawa was a perfect-fit. Had Sir Alex Ferguson’s Summer transfer activity ended at that point, he most likely would have had a very successful career at Manchester United and his combination with Wayne Rooney should theoretically have worked very well.
The buying didn’t end there, though, and two months after Kagawa’s arrival United would take advantage of Robin van Persie’s contractual impasse at Arsenal and bring the Dutch forward to Old Trafford. That changed everything for Kagawa; while Ferguson may have always intended to move from a 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 after 2011/12, van Persie’s arrival altered the allocation of the positions. Whilst the number ten role was presumably designated to Kagawa in June or July, by August it had become Wayne Rooney’s position in the team; van Persie was the form goal-scorer in the Premier League, and United were forced into an adjustment to accommodate him. Ferguson was no longer so reliant on Rooney’s goals, and were therefore able to shift him into a role which brought him into direct competition with the very player he was bought to complement.
That was the beginning of the end of Kagawa’s hopes of becoming in England what he had been in Germany. He was periodically asked to play on the left-hand side of the attacking-midfield unit but at no point did he ever look comfortable or effective, and his sporadic opportunities through the middle came in games of little consequence where good performances carried little resonance. It may have become cliched through overuse, but in this instance the ‘never given a chance in his proper position’ excuse is very much valid. Kagawa arrived at Old Trafford as a solution to a problem, but by the time his first season actually started the gap he was supposed to fill was already occupied.
Maybe there were transitional problems at work here, and maybe there were behind-the-scenes issues which the public never became wise to, but more than anything Shinji Kagawa was a victim of circumstances that nobody could have foreseen.