Most United fans would agree there were a host of positives to take from last week’s enthralling encounter against Real Madrid. The result. The away goal. United’s refusal to crumble under pressure. The pace, tenacity and focus of Jones in midfield. Danny Welbeck and Jonny Evans proving a fair few people wrong. The imperious ‘don’t bother packing your bags just yet Begovic’ performance of David De Gea.
If there was one disappointment of the night, aside from Van Persie uncharacteristically failing to convert that glorious chance, it was the somewhat underwhelming performance of Shinji Kagawa. It’s hard to argue he acquitted himself with any real purpose during the game. I have had high hopes for him all season, and felt, after witnessing continual, albeit slow, improvement, that the game with Madrid would be when he’d announce himself as a player of calibre for United.
It just never quite happened, whether he was operating in the hole behind Van Persie, or later in the game when he was moved out to the left to accommodate Welbeck adopting a more central role. Aside from a few neat touches and turns in the early exchanges, he failed to make much of an impression and it was no surprise to see him substituted. He worked hard, made clever runs, and was not afraid to battle it out with the Madrid defenders, but he was often out-muscled and was caught in possession on more than one occasion.
If that feels like an overly-harsh analysis, it’s not intended that way. He had a disappointing game – he’s not a disappointment. In my opinion, he has shown enough in glimpses this season to confirm he possesses all the attributes to be a success at Old Trafford. He is a type of player we have not often had: comfortable with either foot, he likes to move the ball swiftly, taking the ball on the half-turn or deftly laying it off: fast movement combined with fast feet (Tom Cleverley displays similar attributes at times). Comparisons with David Silva – at least in terms of playing style, if not yet in terms of impact – have some merit.
Sir Alex has recently defended Kagawa, declaring he is still adapting to the Premier League, which is far more physical than the Bundesliga, and confirming his belief that he will be a success next season, if not this one (a statement I agree with).
Aside from what he said, it was interesting that Sir Alex felt there was a need to defend Kagawa. I have not seen a great deal of criticism of him this season (the media, at least, have tended to reserve that for De Gea) but the Madrid game seemed to alter that a little – or at least prompt a casual dismissal of his ability. I watched the match with some fellow United supporters and was happy with Sir Alex’s team selection but, on hearing the line-up, my friends reacted with dismay. From experience, I assumed the source of their disappointment was observing Welbeck in the line-up, but it actually came solely from Kagawa’s inclusion. His performance, naturally, did little to change their perception of him.
The next day, I spoke with a few other United supporters, and a common theme occurred: they felt Kagawa is not good enough. Their views may or may not be representative of our fan-base but it’s a shame that at least some reds seem to be losing faith, or even writing him off already. We have seen many foreign players struggle in their first season in the Premier League, Thierry Henry being perhaps the most famous example. Spanish players seem to the only ones who adapt with ease to the English game, which is why it’s surprising La Liga is not raided more often for new recruits.
In a strange way, Ji Sung Park may be part of the problem. Park was a very good player for us for many years, and his tireless energy and enthusiasm, plus a knack for scoring important goals, encouraged Sir Alex to regularly select him for important games. He faded last season quite dramatically, prompting his departure to QPR last summer, the same summer we bought Kagawa. I have since heard the notion we needed another Asian player to replace Park, such was his popularity, and accordant commercial revenue. It would be naive to suggest the Glazers are not delighted by the possibilities of capitalising on the Far Eastern market but describing Kagawa as ‘the new Park’, as I heard the other day, is nothing more than lazy and stereotypical, and blinds people to his superior attributes.
He boasts some pedigree too. He excelled last season playing as a number ten in Borussia Dortmund’s double-wining campaign, scoring seventeen goals, and notching 13 assists – more than Robben, Schweingsteiger, Ribery, and the rest. He made the Bundesliga team of the year, as well as being awarded the Asain player of the year for 2012. This is hardly a player to write off as not good enough after just half a season, particularly when his greatest crime is he has not been fantastic. He’s not been awful either; he’s simply been decent – and he’s improving.
Moreover, if he’s still adjusting to life in Manchester, United are still adjusting to him. We have yet worked out how to play to his strengths, or fit him into the dynamic of our side. The other players are aware of his talent, but seem to be still calculating how to exploit it. It will be achieved, but it will more than likely require that rarest of commodities in football nowadays: patience.
His age is worth considering as well. He is only 23. The same age as Cleverley and just a year older than Welbeck and Refeal. We are all aware they are still developing and are years from their peak, but with Kagawa that can get forgotten. Due to the credentials and reputation he arrived with, it felt like we were getting the finished article. In truth, there actually should be at least five or six years of improvement still to come.
Sir Alex could be right and it is next season when we see the best of him. Should he replicate his Dortmund form, he could certainly help elevate our team to another level, particularly in Europe. I admit I expected more from him already but I still believe he can become the player for United he was so successfully in Germany. Besides, we can wait. It’s hardly like we don’t possess any other good forwards in the meantime.
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