It all started with such promise. A young Japanese attacking midfielder moves to one of the biggest clubs in the world after two impressive seasons under an up-and-coming manager at one of Europe’s most likeable teams. The time seemed right for Shinji Kagawa to begin the next chapter of his career learning the ins and outs of Premier League football under the tutelage of one Sir Alex Ferguson.
It goes without saying that things haven’t really gone to plan. Kagawa struggled with injuries and never really convinced in his first season (although he did show flashes like a hat trick against Norwich), and this season, under new manager David Moyes, he has been a peripheral figure with just a handful of starts and even fewer opportunities to play in his preferred number 10 position. Perhaps Moyes is unconvinced by Kagawa’s qualities. Perhaps Moyes just needs somebody stronger and more athletic for his style of play. Whatever the reason, following the signing of Juan Mata in the winter transfer window, it’s becoming increasingly likely that Kagawa will have to leave Old Trafford to get more regular playing time. But just where should he go?
To answer this question, it’s important to know what type of player Kagawa is. Although he considers himself a number 10, Kagawa is not in the same mold as most Premier League playmakers. Conventional number 10’s – your Mesut Ozil’s, Wayne Rooney’s and David Silva’s – are players that love to have the ball at their feet, pick out through balls, take on defenders, and generally be the center of attention. Kagawa is very different. Although he occupies a similar area of the pitch, he is all about quick one-two’s and darting runs, always there to help out and provide an option. His constant movement makes him hard to track and he generally likes to receive the ball on the move and shift it quickly. His value is not in his dribbling ability, strength, or pace but in his elusiveness, quick thinking, and selfless play.
This is not to say that Kagawa is just a helper. He scored 29 goals in two seasons for Borussia Dortmund and has scored 17 goals for the Japan national team. When his confidence is high, he can, in his own way, become the fulcrum of a side – like a moving wall drifting around the pitch as teammates bounce passes off his nimble feet, creating space and building attacking moves. With this in mind, there are three teams in the Premier League that I think would perfectly suit Kagawa, both in terms of playing style and his need for playing time.
1) Everton – Since Roberto Martinez took over the Toffees last summer, the Catalan manager has quickly instilled his preferred quick passing, possession-based style of play. Utilizing the passing ability of Gareth Barry and James McCarthy in the middle of park with two skillful players – Steven Pienaar and Kevin Mirallas – on the wings, Everton play a bit like an Arsenal-lite; plenty of possession and nice combinations but at times lacking a bit of bite. The number 10 position has tended to be filled by Ross Barkley when healthy but there are some who feel that the youngster’s future may lie further back in central midfield to make best use of his size and strength. If Kagawa were to move to Goodison Park, he could play in his preferred second striker/number 10 position, linking central midfield with attack and helping to bring the likes of Mirallas and Pienaar into play. Everton’s style of play should suit Kagawa to a T and, given the Toffees limited squad depth, the Japanese midfielder should have plenty of chances to play. The big question would be wages. Kagawa is unlikely to be on superstar wages at Manchester United but he may still command more than Everton can afford. Kagawa may also be unwilling to move to a “smaller club,” though given Manchester United’s performances this season, there is every chance that Everton will finish above them.
2) Southampton – Much like Everton, Southampton play a possession-based game that relies on good teamwork and player rotations to fashion chances. At their best, Southampton combine quick short passing with high pressing, a style somewhat similar to Borussia Dortmund though without quite the same quality of personnel. Naturally, this would be a good fit for Kagawa. At present, Southampton’s playmaking duties tend to fall to Lallana as a kind of drifting number 10 or Gaston Ramirez. However, Lallana seems more comfortable drifting in from the wing whilst Ramirez has consistency problems. As such, Kagawa should be able to slot in fairly comfortably with Jay Rodriguez and Adam Lallana on either side. In fact, given all the praise that has been showered on Lallana this season, he may even find himself at a bigger club next season. The presence of another Japanese player, Maya Yoshida, would also be a plus as Yoshida should be able to help Kagawa settle into a new environment. The big question mark here is whether Kagawa would be willing to accept moving to Southampton, a club that is much smaller than Manchester United, both in terms of profile and size. Kagawa is a superstar in Japan, in the same way that Wayne Rooney is in England. Moving from Manchester United to Southampton would be considered a significant step down. Wages could also be an issue; though if the Saints are able to pay Pablo Osvaldo £60,000 per week (according to some reports), they should be able to pay Kagawa enough to keep him happy.
3) Arsenal – This would probably be Kagawa’s preferred destination but given the presence of players like Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky, he could have a tough time making it into the first team. On the plus side, it’s hard to imagine a better fit in terms of playing style. Arsenal like to play fast-flowing, one-touch football and their midfielders have the technique and intelligence to make it work. Although Kagawa may not get the same first team opportunities that he would get at clubs like Everton and Southampton, Arsenal’s stature means he might be more willing to accept being a squad player as long as there was enough squad rotation to get him a decent number of games. Given Arsenal’s well-documented injury troubles, that may not be an issue. Between that and his seemingly great fit for Arsenal’s system, Kagawa should get more opportunities to play at Arsenal than he does presently at Manchester United. Arsene Wenger also seems to have a bit of a soft spot for Japanese players, probably due to the fact that he spent some time in Japan as manager of Nagoya Grampus Eight. His Japanese acquisitions at Arsenal – Junichi Inamoto and Ryo Miyaichi – haven’t exactly worked out but Wenger is on the record as saying he believes Japan is an interesting market for talent. The big question may be whether Arsenal would feel the need to buy a player like Kagawa. They have no shortage of attacking midfielders and have much bigger needs up front and in the center of defense.
In essence, Kagawa should thrive at any club that likes to play possession-based passing soccer, but if he decides to move to another club in the Premier League he may have to accept that he will have to take a step down. Kagawa seems like a hard worker and is not considered particularly arrogant by the Japanese media, so he may be willing to do this. Otherwise, he may have to look for opportunities abroad and in truth, this may be a better fit for his skills.
If he does move away from the Premier League, I for one will consider it a shame as I think he is a relatively unique player and can make a difference when played in the right system. The continued calls for his inclusion from a vocal group of Manchester United fans suggest that they too believe he can make an impact. However, with the immense pressure on David Moyes and Kagawa’s understated style of play, it is no big surprise that he is struggling for playing time. Unless Moyes drastically changes his opinion of Kagawa in the coming weeks, one thing seems clear: for the benefit of both club and player, it’s probably time for Kagawa to move on.