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The Kagawa conundrum

John Brewin
November 9, 2013
Shinji Kagawa has been a bit-part player for Manchester United this season © Getty Images
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Manchester United manager David Moyes knows he will be asked about Shinji Kagawa in every single news conference. He is more responsive to the questions than Sir Alex Ferguson once was, even if he is less sure about the player.

United are followed by a committed group of Japanese media wherever they play or train. Kagawa's predecessors received similar treatment. Kazuyoshi Miura's 1994-95 season in Serie A saw Japanese journalists and photographers swamp Genoa, before Hidetoshi Nakata played for Perugia, Parma, Bologna and Fiorentina and was followed everywhere he went. Nakata was milked by his Italian clubs as a cash cow, but was a good enough player to merit all the fuss. His coterie of dedicated correspondents ended up following him to Bolton.

Having joined in the summer of 2001, Junichi Inamoto did not play a single league match for Arsenal in a year but Arsene Wenger, a Japanese speaker, spent a season answering questions about the midfielder. Such slim pickings were devoured until Inamoto joined Fulham and then West Brom, where the Black Country became an unlikely destination for Japanese journalists.

Kagawa and Manchester United looked a dream combination. United's commercial department had a fresh Asian frontier to conquer after the bonanza that having Park Ji-Sung in the ranks brought them in South Korea. Kagawa came with a lofty reputation. On the eve of Euro 2012's final, your correspondent was told by a group of German fans, in Kiev after travelling there in overconfidence, that the best player in the Bundesliga that previous season had been Kagawa.

"When he signed for United, there was a great sense of pride in Japan that one of their players had joined one of the biggest clubs in the world," says Andrew McKirdy of the Japan Times, an English-language newspaper in Tokyo. "But there was also a bit of apprehension about whether he would play much."

That apprehension is growing. The first season saw glimpses, particularly so in a hat-trick against Norwich that showed off the change of pace and finishing skills that made him such an idol at Borussia Dortmund. Kagawa was trusted by Ferguson to start away to Real Madrid on the left side of a midfield diamond but was only rarely granted the central position to allow him to make the incisive, late runs that are his potent weapon.

Dortmund boss Juergen Klopp told the Guardian in May: "He now plays 20 minutes at Manchester United - on the left wing! My heart breaks. Really, I have tears in my eyes."

Moyes has less enthusiasm for Kagawa than Klopp or Ferguson but the player had been a victim of circumstance. A late return from the Confederations Cup in the summer stopped him having a proper pre-season. Playing 28 minutes at Yokohama Marinos fulfilled a commercial clause rather than any proper preparation plan.

When Kagawa was left out of Moyes' matchday squad for the opening home game against Chelsea, rumblings began. The Moyes doubters had their sacred cow. That a Manchester United manager would ignore such a player was proof of unsuitability. The intermittent flashes of genius were enough to convince that Kagawa should be a key player. However, Wayne Rooney occupies the role that the Kagawa supporters want for their man, to mirror what happens at international level.

"Kagawa isn't the main man in Japan's national team and never has been," McKirdy says. "Keisuke Honda is the star of the team, and the one who plays in the middle and shunts Kagawa out to the left. The reason is that Honda is a much more physical presence, and he's a real handful for defenders to deal with."

Honda's Tuesday appearance at Manchester City with CSKA Moscow brought with it a similarly large Japanese press pack to that which follows Kagawa.

On the same night, Kagawa played at Real Sociedad, starting on the left wing, before Ashley Young's arrival pushed him behind Robin van Persie in the position his admirers say is rightfully his. United became more productive, as they had when Kagawa moved into the same position against Sociedad a fortnight previously. Javier Hernandez inexplicably missed the golden chance Kagawa had expertly supplied him.

Moyes has slowly gathered an appreciation of Kagawa's potential in a central role but there remain doubts over his ability to impose himself on games. There are far too many moments where the flicks do not come off, and an opponent's strength shakes him from the ball.

While Rooney continues to occupy the central role, Adnan Januzaj's surge to prominence has made a left-hand role far less of a certainty, even in the light of Nani and Young's fading cachet. Januzaj's future surely lies in the centre and, at 18, he already exhibits a physical and moral courage that Kagawa is yet to reveal. Januzaj is a shoo-in to start against Arsenal on Sunday. The selection of Kagawa would display risk-taking values that Moyes has not yet personified at United.

That caution is fully understandable. Kagawa has not shown nearly enough for a team as ambitious as United to be built around, in the fashion that Argentina, Boca Juniors and Villarreal once did for Juan Roman Riquelme, or Southampton for Matthew Le Tissier.

It all leaves Kagawa's long-term future open to question. Weekend rumours had him wanting out in January to win a World Cup place - his international form has been suffering too. A return to Dortmund is mooted, but they have moved on. Henrikh Mkhitaryan has been hugely impressive in what was once Kagawa's position.

"I had an easier time playing as a shadow top [No. 10] than I did on the left wing," Kagawa told his dedicated reporters in San Sebastian after Tuesday's 0-0 draw with La Real. "I need to be more involved in the match and I hope I can do so in our upcoming fixtures. I want to play better, sharper and faster."

Moyes and United need that, too. Brief flashes are not enough. Kagawa must adapt to prosper, or his future, and that of his personal press corps, lay elsewhere.

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