The disappearance of Shinji Kagawa

Posted by Richard Jolly

Jurgen Klopp is one of football's great non-conformists. And so, when everyone was paying glowing tributes to the retiring Sir Alex Ferguson, the Borussia Dortmund coach was alone in displaying a little dissent. The Scot's selection policy irritated the German.

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"Shinji Kagawa is one of the best players in the world and he now plays 20 minutes at Manchester United -- on the left wing," the told the Guardian in May. "My heart breaks. Really, I have tears in my eyes." Three months later, Kagawa doesn't even play 20 minutes for United any more. His entire season amounts to eight minutes on the pitch. This time Klopp's grief brought a different reaction: Dortmund attempted to take the Japanese back to the Westfalenstadion. Their offer was rebuffed.

And so, instead of being cast as the returning hero, Kagawa appears the unwanted cause celebre, growing more conspicuous with every absence from the team-sheet. It is not just in the Ruhr Valley and Japan that his treatment is bemoaned. When United have failed to score in back-to-back games, when they are not creating many chances and when Wayne Rooney, his rival for the No. 10 position, is sidelined, the calls for Kagawa have grown louder.

David Moyes has not heeded them, prompting questions that United's new manager is blind to his attributes. The answer is probably not -- the hints from Old Trafford are that the Scot rates Kagawa and, albeit to a Japanese audience, he spoke positively about the player in July -- but it is easy to see why such theories have arisen.

Ferguson often encouraged an element of mystery about marginalised players. Moyes, unlike his predecessor, has a track record of being reasonably honest in his injury updates and has not taken the easy option of claiming Kagawa was unavailable. Rather the playmaker, deployed briefly in the Community Shield, an unused substitute for United's first two league games and omitted from the 18 for last Sunday's defeat to Liverpool, is apparently neither injured nor match fit.

He has lingered in a state of limbo for weeks. Granted time off after the Confederations Cup, he was rushed back for the pre-season tour of Japan for commercial considerations, and then given another break afterwards. Kagawa travelled to his homeland to face Uruguay three days before the Premier League season opener and, understandably, did not start against Swansea. United's demanding early-season fixture list has limited Moyes' opportunities to experiment and his subsequent selections have been conservative; the tried and trusted have been favoured.

The problem for Kagawa is that the schedule offers little respite and few chances for Moyes, a novice to the art of squad rotation after his years at Everton, to alternate. September brings meetings with Bayer Leverkusen, Manchester City and Liverpool. Before then the Old Trafford clash with Crystal Palace, when Rooney should still be missing, appears the ideal game to stake his case: except it comes four days after Japan host Ghana. If Kagawa is presumed too jetlagged, the current impasse could extend towards October.

It may bode badly that he has remained on the fringes when various other midfielders and forwards -- Rooney, Nani, Ashley Young, Darren Fletcher and Javier Hernandez -- have not been in peak physical condition themselves and before United had signed Marouane Fellaini. Perhaps the most damning detail was that Nani, also apparently semi-fit, was chosen for the final place on the bench at Anfield. Moyes felt the Portuguese was a likelier game-changer than a player who averaged a goal every two-and-a-half games for Dortmund. An equaliser eluded United. The manager lamented that the injured Rooney could have made a difference at Anfield; so, some felt, could the excluded Kagawa.

If omitting a player of his calibre is a new problem for Moyes, so is possessing one of his type. The early indications are the 50-year-old intends to play a similar system at United as he did for Everton. In his 4-4-1-1, the support striker's role at Goodison Park over the last nine years has been shared by Tim Cahill and Fellaini, footballers known more for their physical than technical abilities. The same cannot be said for Kagawa.

Moreover, while Moyes' preferred plan is clearly for Rooney to rampage around between midfield and attack, Danny Welbeck deputised in the hole at Anfield. Once again, power was prioritised over delicacy.

Perhaps the Evertonian who provides the closest comparison with Kagawa, Steven Pienaar, was rebranded as a left-sided midfielder by Moyes -- Klopp's verdict on the conversion of another former Dortmund player is sadly unrecorded -- and while the Scot is yet to settle on a regular on that side, the Japanese's last start for United, in Rio Ferdinand's testimonial against Sevilla, came on the flank.

He played poorly that day. Indeed, Kagawa has admitted he was not satisfied with his form in his debut year at Old Trafford. Too often he had to don a tactical straitjacket to operate on the left. The quest to 'free Shinji' inspired a Twitter campaign but he has not been liberated, either by being given a ticket back to Dortmund or unshackled to operate as Robin van Persie's sidekick.

And so while United felt themselves the winners in the summer-long battle to retain Rooney's services, the loser may not be his suitor, Jose Mourinho, as much as the man chained to the touchline or the bench: Kagawa.


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