By Thomas Doyle
While Chelsea struck the first blow in the transfer market by winning the race to sign Lille’s sought-after starlet Eden Hazard, Sir Alex Ferguson followed up the disappointment by swooping in to seal a deal for a lesser-known target on the continent – Borussia Dortmund’s Japanese playmaker, Shinji Kagawa. Some United fans may be disappointed that 23-year-old Kagawa – who cost the German double winners a mere £300,000 in 2010 – is not an ‘A-list’ signing in the realm of a Hazard or Sneijder, but early indications – providing a medical and work permit go to plan – are that the Japanese may be an inspired bit of business for Manchester United.
A cynic would suggest that Kagawa has simply been signed for his huge marketing potential, but to the Bundesliga, and Borussia’s opponents in particular, Kagawa has been more than just a name to be exploited. If the initial fee paid to Cerezo Osaka represented a cheap gamble from Jurgen Klopp on the young Japanese, Kagawa’s return of eight goals in his first season helped Dortmund on the way to their first title in nine years, a decent return considering he was injured for half the season. Many players (and clubs) often take a division by surprise through the spontaneity of their play in a new division, but suffer the dreaded ‘second season syndrome (Javier Hernandez would do well to avoid this tag with a bright opening to season number three), yet Kagawa simply went from strength to strength. With influential German wunderkid Mario Gotze out for four months last year, Kagawa became the fulcrum of the side, dominating the play from a central position. He ended the 2011/12 season with 17 goals, 13 assists, and a German league and cup double. Again, United fans may be dreaming of the likes of Gotze, Schweinsteiger and Ribery, but it was Kagawa who ended the German campaign with more goals than any midfielder in the division. Of particular note was his outstanding display in the German Cup final, instigating the 5-2 drubbing of Bayern Munich with Ferguson and Mike Phelan in attendance, confirming United’s interest.
Looking at his playing style, it is clear that Kagawa thrives in a 4-2-3-1 shape where he can drift behind a lone striker; reminiscent of a young Paul Scholes or Frank Lampard, he is difficult to pick up, and combines precise finishing with impressive vision and awareness of his team mates. Whatsmore, he enjoys dribbling at defenders, which would give United a real threat from a central position that has been lacking for a number of seasons. With the release of Michael Owen and the all-but-inevitable departure of Dimitar Berbatov, it is more likely that Ferguson will seek to utilise Kagawa as the creative hub of the team just off of Wayne Rooney, with two wide players and two holding midfielders behind him. The 4-4-2 will be used against weaker opposition and for squad rotation, but for the big clashes and European games, make no mistake that Kagawa will be a key figure. The likes of Rooney, Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck and Antonio Valencia should thrive with his quick interplay, and Kagawa will offer Ferguson an alternative to the flat 4-4-2 or stale 4-5-1 of last season.
In terms of Kagawa’s financial impact on the club, an initial £12million is a relatively small fee in today’s market, and his reported wages of £60,000 a week pale in comparison to earners around the league. Though he had only a year left to run on his contract, and expressed his desire to leave for England, the eight-figure sum represents the Japanese’s huge potential, and the need to fend off late interest from Arsene Wenger. Even then, it has become clear in recent weeks that United are financially strong in Asia, and by signing a rising star of the Japanese team, they will realistically recoup their invest of the fee and wages through shirt sales alone within weeks. Indeed, the Japanese media have effectively announced that Kagawa is the “new Nakata”, a reference to the hugely popular Hidetoshi Nakata, another Japanese forward who plied his trade in Italy (winning the Scudetto with Roma in 2001) before appearing for Bolton Wanderers.
With Park Ji-Sung’s star on the wane at United, a new Asian signing seems like a sound business investment under a Glazer ownership that has sought to maximise sponsorship deals and marketability – while it seems the debt enforced by their ownership and sugar daddies with unlimited resources has affected United’s ability to compete in the transfer market, the Glazers have been extremely successful in increasing United commercial revenue, and Kagawa will merely strengthen United’s prospects in regard to UEFA’s impending financial fair play scheme.
As well as his skill and value to the club, Kagawa’s temperament must have attracted Ferguson, who is known to value emotional maturity and a sound work ethic. Kagawa once stated: “I was born in 1989, the Japanese year of the snake. People born under the snake are very driven, hate failure and don’t mind hardship.” His quick turn of pace and ability to slither through defences at will seems fairly apt, and Ferguson will be impressed at his desire to work hard for the team – ably demonstrated by impressively industrial performances on the left for Japan, as Raphael Honigstein suggested in his BBC article on the deal.
Young, skilful, industrious, dangerous, low-cost and highly marketable – while it would be easy to write off Kagawa as the right face for the right market, when the deal is weighed up, it seems like the easiest decision Ferguson will have to make all summer. With his childhood ambition of playing in England finally realised, Kagawa will surely be hungry to prove himself at his very own Theatre of Dreams.
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