Why Shinji Kagawa Thrived at Dortmund but Is Struggling at Manchester United
Just over 15 months ago, Shinji Kagawa was on top of the world. After starring for Dortmund as the Ruhr side had won the Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal ahead of Bayern Munich, he completed a "dream" move to Manchester United. But as with Nuri Sahin a year before, leaving the Signal-Iduna Park hasn't turned out so well for the Japan international.
Last season, Kagawa struggled for playing time. He played the full 90 minutes just six times in all competitions and after returning from a knee injury that had sidelined him for two months, he was used almost exclusively out of position. Apart from one isolated, virtuoso performance against Norwich, he was largely a flop.
Dortmund coach Juergen Klopp summed up Kagawa's situation and his own lament in May: "Shinji Kagawa is one of the best players in the world and he now plays 20 minutes at Manchester United – on the left wing! My heart breaks."
It seemed that things could hardly get worse for Kagawa in his second season in Manchester, but the 24-year-old has hardly played under new trainer David Moyes. He's made just four appearances in all competitions for the Red Devils, failing to directly play a hand in any goal. And although Moyes has tried to play down the player's absence, one has to ask: What's the matter with Shinji?
The typical and easiest response to the question of any new player struggling in England is a matter of physical conditioning. And in fairness, perhaps Kagawa was not fully ready for the athletic demands of playing in England.
But especially after he had a full year to adapt and improve his physical shape, this alone cannot be enough of an explanation. Besides, he came from a Dortmund club that emphasized hard running. Even in his first half-season at BVB, Kagawa set the pace for all Bundesliga players by running an average of 12.36 km per 90 minutes.
Culture certainly plays a role in Kagawa's struggles in England. It rarely is easy for a foreign player to adapt to life in a new country, let alone a different league. Football in England is overtly physical. Attacking midfielders are rarely central players and are much more commonly wingers known for their pace and athleticism. To play in the center, a defender, midfielder or striker in most cases must be tall, quick and/or physically strong. Kagawa ticks none of these boxes.
Kagawa's natural role is behind a main striker. He played as the "No. 10" at Dortmund, but to describe him as a classic playmaker would be a mistake. His style is more Isco than Ozil; he scores many more goals than he assists. But at 5'8" and listed at 141 pounds he is rather slight in stature. And unlike the similarly diminutive central attacker Sergio Aguero, he lacks a quick burst of pace and great upper-body strength to make up for his other modest physical attributes.
At Dortmund, Kagawa's physical qualities were no problem. There he was able to use his technical and tactical ability to create space. A master of finding space off the ball, he received sublime service from deeper players like Nuri Sahin, Ilkay Gundogan and even center-back Mats Hummels. There he engaged in clever one-two passes with Mario Goetze and received headers and back-heels from striker Robert Lewandowski.
Kagawa greatly benefited from Dortmund's sophisticated passing game and would create play in all sorts of subtle ways, from quick turns to dummies to one-two passes. In most cases he played with only one or two touches.
Manchester United play with a different style that does not suit him. They attack from wide positions and quick wingers race up the flanks. When the ball is in the center, it's typically the pacey Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie running at defenders on a counterattack.
When used behind a main striker at United, Kagawa has no Sahin or Gundogan to play the ball from deep and therefore may have to drop back (and out of position) to receive the ball. And he is not of the build to be able to chase down long, high passes. When on the left he is out of his natural element, and there is no Goetze-type with whom he can exchange a sequence of one-touch passes.
Kagawa may have had more of a chance this season, but Moyes was unable to bring in Thiago Alcantara or Cesc Fabregas to add much-needed class from deeper areas in central midfield. And as well, Rooney has found his form playing in the hole behind van Persie.
The only way Kagawa could truly show his best qualities in this Manchester United team would be if Moyes were to use him behind van Persie and Rooney in a 4-3-1-2 formation. But such a narrow setup is very uncharacteristic of a team that for a very long time has emphasized width, be it in a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 formation.
Like Sahin before him, Kagawa left an ideal situation at Dortmund for a more traditional power that moved him out of his element. The first year was always going to be a struggle as he looked to adapt to a different home, league and team. But his continued inability to earn playing time is evidence that he just isn't the kind of player Moyes wants in his team. Come January, it may be time for Kagawa and United to part ways.
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