Manchester United: How Shinji Kagawa Could Trigger a New Dawn at Old Trafford
Shinji Kagawa is barely 23. He is not the new Paul Scholes. He will not, on his own, transform Manchester United, but he can be a catalyst for so much change and a move to the next phase of United's success.
He will also not by any means be United's only major summer signing. Nor should the signings of Angelo Henriquez and Nick Powell be underrated.
For the doom-mongers who have forecast that United only have the money to buy one player, the offer for Luka Modric is a reality check. Other players will follow.
In my series on Wholesale Changes at Old Trafford, I forecast that:
There would be a big clear-out this summer; this has started and there is much to come;
There would be more money to spend than some people would have you believe; the Glazers have always sanctioned Sir Alex Ferguson's spending;
There could be several players coming in; this is so that Sir Alex can rebuild the squad to be flexible for all competitions and scenarios, and he can change a tactical formation at will.
Shinji Kagawa fits perfectly with the latter scenario. While Javi Hernandez is a hugely talented, though one-dimensional striker (his pace and brain create opportunities and he simply scores goals); Danny Welbeck can play on the wing or up front; Rooney can play anywhere; Young can play on the wing, through the middle or in the hole, etc.
People have unfavourably compared United to Barcelona for too long. My belief for four years now is that Sir Alex has been moving toward a 'total football' approach similar to the great Dutch team of Cruyff and the very best Brazilian teams through history.
From Academy level to the EPL, even new signings are coached into new talents: attacking players learn to tackle (Valencia is the best example, being a competent full-back as well as winger); and defenders are coached to pass and attack (Evans, Jones, Smalling).
Some are adaptable to a wide variety of positions: Fabio can play left or right back or orthodox wing. As he and Rafael mature, they will also be able to play attacking midfield.
Rooney is the master, and the future United will be built around his world-class talents and tremendous adaptability and flexibility.
In this slideshow, we shall consider the various facets that Kagawa brings to the show and also the ways it can make United far less one-dimensional than any team in the EPL and many in Europe.
Some things are paramount—and have been for some time. If you sign for United, whether as an incoming transfer or on a senior contract fresh out of the Academy, Ferguson wants you for the rest of your career. You are a squad player. You subjugate yourself to the wider team imperative,; and you accept, relish and draw on the cloak of United's attractive, attacking football traditions.
In short, United don't do Catenaccio, park the bus, lump the ball up the middle or play with no striker.
Kagawa's Footballing Attributes
At 23, Shinji Kagawa has the footballing world at his feet. He can be a legend at Old Trafford and very quickly become the most famous Japanese player ever. He will get plenty of chances.
His key attribute for Sir Alex is his flexibility and adaptability. He is intelligent and selfless. The manager will have had his taste buds dripping with the opportunities presented to him.
But what footballing attributes does he bring to the table?
He has an excellent first touch, great balance and a low centre of gravity. These enable him to turn, lean and attack off either foot. They are also crucial to his dribbling skill.
He has excellent close control, is genuinely two-footed and has the ability like few players in the EPL to dribble or run through a Premier League defence.
Like Chicharito, Park and Anderson, he will always threaten taller, more cumbersome defenders with the ability to leave them standing or make them look stupid.
He is more of a short than long passer of the ball. This will fit in well with Ferguson's developing tactical flexibility. There are other players who can hit the ball long, most notably Rooney, Carrick and Scholes, plus Modric if he comes. This is more appropriate from a deeper position, hitting the wingers or dropping in front of the strikers.
In keeping with Sir Alex's recent imperative, he has pace, but more importantly, excellent control at pace.
Last season in the Bundesliga, he had 20 goals and 14 assists. This would make him second to only Wayne Rooney at Old Trafford.
One of United's great strengths is scoring goals from all over the pitch. Last season, 18 United players scored in all competitions.
The trouble is, Scholes is playing much deeper, as is Carrick. Anderson, Cleverley, Nani, Hernandez and Valencia spent much of the season injured, and Darren Fletcher may never play again.
So expect any attacking player that Sir Alex signs to be capable of adding significantly to United's goal tally.
Kagawa has not only a great goal-scoring ratio for a midfielder, but he hits the target as well.
He scores most of his goals with his right foot, but has scored also with his left (including a scintillating volley last season) and his head. In some ways, he resembles Michael Owen as a goal-scorer and may indeed take over the No. 7 shirt.
In this collation from Japan's recent World Cup qualifier against Jordan, you can see much of the tactical flexibility Kagawa can bring.
He is both disciplined and able to quickly spot the opportunity, either for himself or a colleague.
With a dominant right foot, he often plays in a role coming from the left, like Ashley Young. Sir Alex encourages tactical flexibility, however, and much like Nani and Valencia switching wings, or Nani drifting into a more central role and running at defences, Kagawa can fit this pattern.
He will be one of the very few players with the courage, self-belief, vision and skill to run through a Premier League defence. Nani and Anderson can do it. Ryan Giggs is the past master. Kagawa is also able to determine the moment to be unselfish (which can be Nani's one Achilles heel) and lay off a pass at the last minute to a better-placed colleague.
A Range of Options
No matter how he has been played elsewhere, Kagawa will give Sir Alex a range of tactical options both in the way the team sets up from the start and how it can be adapted as needed during a match.
In many ways he can be similar to Ji Sung Park, but he is more talented and more of an attacker than the Korean who he is likely to replace as Sir Alex's ''go-to'' player.
As he grows and develops, the manager will feel able to use him on the left wing, the right wing, through the middle and in the hole.
In this latter respect, he can be similar to Ashley Young, who may turn out to be England's star player in Euro 2012 and who has undoubtedly grown as a player during only one year at Old Trafford.
Kagawa can benefit similarly.
Shinji Kagawa will have to learn English fast when he comes to Old Trafford.
But he can do his talking with his feet if he scores more goals like this against Manchester City!
Although all his interviews are in Japanese, if you watch them on YouTube, you can see he is thoughtful, respectful, considerate and a team player. His manner reminds of a cross between Chicharito and Ji Sung Park.
For some of us, it now seems that Eden Hazard was a ''near-miss'' for United. Unlike Kagawa, he has come across as somewhat arrogant—especially in his post-transfer remarks.
While the Belgian can speak excellent English, he seems rather too self-absorbed. He has almost certainly gone to Chelsea for the money, once he decided that he would get the most game time at either Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge.
Kagawa, on the other hand, seems mature, with his feet firmly on the ground and an awareness of his part in the whole. He will be given the opportunity to be a star and maybe a legend at Old Trafford. Indeed, he could become the greatest Japanese player ever.
He will undoubtedly get better still at Old Trafford. Every new player is told that it can take up to two years to become totally a United player. That period includes physical development, skills coaching, tactical awareness, fitting in with the United style and team ethic, and in Kagawa's case, learning to tackle very well.
In these respects he can be yet another shrewd signing like Ji Sung Park. He has good judgement, always seems to have a range of options and is more than capable in selecting the right one.
How Good Can He Become?
This is how good he can become and to me the player he resembles most.
As a physical specimen, he seems to have the makeup and, with his Japanese self-discipline and healthy regime, why shouldn't he also play well into his 30s.
In some respects, Kagawa is a melting pot of Anderson, Giggs and Park, with a touch of Nani.
The player he has almost certainly been bought to replace is Anderson. He already looks a far better goal-scorer than the Brazilian international, who I expect to be shipped out this summer.
You could see Kagawa interchanging with Cleverley as they break down defences, much in the way that Anderson and Cleverley did at the start of last season before injury shattered that prospect.
If Kagawa can add sound tackling skills, he can be at least as effective as Ji Sung Park, who was never much rated as a goal-scorer by the English press but was, in fact, a striker for Korea.
But ultimately—and indeed within one season, if possible—Sir Alex needs a player to replace Ryan Giggs, both with his skill and his adaptability.
Luka Modric would be the Paul Scholes replacement. Kagawa can emulate Giggs and has plenty of time to do so. There is no other player quite like him at Old Trafford, except perhaps the raw and youthful Jesse Lingard.
While United have a certain tradition and style, which has evolved gradually with football, there is an urgent need for greater flexibility in Europe.
In the Premier League, however, it is primarily about three things: discipline and organisation; skill at speed; and the ability to break down dogged defence.
Kagawa's personal makeup and previous experience—especially for the Japanese national squad—will mean he can fit hand in glove with United's discipline and organisation from the back forward. Few teams concede less goals, anywhere in the world.
Traditionally, however, the Red Devils have been able to turn this rapidly into attack or counter-attack. Take the signing of David de Gea, for example. In some ways he is just as much a sweeper as a keeper.
Like Van Der Sar and Schmeichel before him, he has the capability to start an attack with a throw-out or an impeccably placed kick, rather than the ''lump it up the middle'' that even Joe Hart was doing against Norway and Belgium.
To create more opportunities, United will need to attack more at pace. They have the capability. They are also extremely mean with the ball coming out of defence. But if Paul Scholes isn't going to be around much longer, they are going to need more ball-players who can cut a defence to shreds and carve out an opportunity for themselves or a colleague.
From the ages of nine, 10 or 11, United Academy players are taught to hit, receive, pass and run with the ball at pace. Ferguson has consistently signed players with pace recently. He would rather add skill to pace than try the reverse. (Which is probably why Usain Bolt fancies a career at Old Trafford after athletics!)
Kagawa has the personal characteristics, skills, intelligence, adaptability, flexibility and willingness to learn and grow at 23 that can fit the way United play and will need to play in the Premier League.
They are unlikely to abandon 4-4-2 because that is the United way, but Kagawa will fit a 4-2-3-1 that can be used in the Premier League or Europe as appropriate.
Shinji Kagawa is a modern footballer. His experience in the Bundesliga also makes him a very attractive commodity for United in the Champions League.
He is disciplined and intelligent enough to fit into any tactical system but also has the vision and skills in abundance to unlock any defence in a moment—as the video above shows.
If there is one criticism of Sir Alex, it has been his one-dimensional approach in Europe—as shown up by Athletic Bilbao and Basel just as much as by Barcelona.
4-5-1 just won't do.
I'm very clear that the way forward is 4-2-3-1, but for this he will either need Darren Fletcher to get fit again or must sign someone like Javi Martinez. Carrick and Scholes may be the best partnership for the two in the middle, but Paul can no longer play 90 minutes in a game, plays too deep, and his manager believes he can't play more than one match a week.
In a year's time, Scholes will almost certainly retire.
Personally, I would like to see 3-5-2, but that's never going to happen.
Kagawa can play in all formations and systems and still stand out. The future at United will very much be built around Wayne Rooney.
Sometimes he will play as an out-and-out striker, other times in a pair. He will often play ''in the hole'' like Steven Gerrard, or in the midfield pair as Scholes does now. Indeed, he can play anywhere on the pitch except in goal (and he's working on that!)
To accommodate this, Sir Alex needs flexible adaptable players. Kagawa fits the bill perfectly. He can be Rooney's foil anywhere except number nine and can fill the gaps that the Old Evertonian leaves.
I also have no doubts that he will form an excellent understanding with Rooney and partnership as appropriate.
The Future Is Bright
As I've said many times, there's a ''truckload of talent'' coming through at Old Trafford.
It's a pity that Will Keane has had a cruciate knee injury. Sir Alex has made it clear he would have been in the first team squad next season.
Will and Michael Keane, Ryan Tunnicliffe, David Patrucci, Zeki Fryers and a host of others are the future of United. Yes, its damning that Pogba has gone, but if he didn't want to stay he wasn't right anyhow. He may get a shock in Italy.
To maintain United's 60-plus years of playing football the way they do and winning trophies, you need young players coming through.
You cannot always guarantee to have the desired finished product at the right time in the right position, however.
So you need players who can adapt to a number of roles—not utility players—and if necessary you must sign them from elsewhere.
When Fergie's Fledglings arrived, there were other, more mature players to complement them. There will be dwindling numbers of those at Old Trafford in the next two to three years.
So Sir Alex is building the next dynasty around the experience of Giggs, Scholes, Ferdinand, Evra, Vidic, Carrick and Fletcher (hopefully). He also has the wise old head of Wayne Rooney to call on.
In my opinion, the future will be built around Rooney.
He also needs some mature younger players who will become the wise heads in due course. Apart from Rooney, he has Valencia, Young, Evans, Lindegaard and Nani.
He needs to add to these. Sneijder would have done perfectly. Modric is a good second choice. He can fill the void of Paul Scholes.
Kagawa also fits. Although only 23, like Hernandez, Welbeck, Smalling and Jones, he already looks like he is an ''old head on young shoulders.''
Javi Martinez, Mathieu Debuchy, Mats Hummels, Robert Lewandovski and Christian Erikssen would also fit with this group.
Meanwhile, Powell and Henriquez are adding to the burgeoning young talent that will not only beat down the door, but will get there chance at Old Trafford where they might not at City, Liverpool or Chelsea.
So in three years time, United's Champions League team could look like this:
Jones, Smalling, Evans, Baines
Valencia, Kagawa, Young
Subs: Lindegaard, Rafael, Fabio, Powell, Cleverley, Hernandez, Welbeck
And in eight years:
Rafael, Jones, Smalling, Fabio
Brady, Cleverley, Kagawa, Lingard
Subs: Johnstone, Fryers, Keane, Fornasier, Petrucci, Henriqez, Hernandez