Why is the jury still out on Shinji Kagawa?

John Duerden John Duerden

He is one of the most successful and famous Asian players ever but how football remembers Shinji Kagawa could be determined by what happens in the next few months.

At the age of 28, the player should be in his prime, yet last week he was dropped by Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic. The reason was not to spare the busy German-based star a long trip home to take on two middling nations in fairly unremarkable friendly games. The Bosnian boss has left out the Borussia Dortmund man for two games against Brazil and Belgium, two of the strongest teams in the world.

Not only that but the action will be taking place on his doorstep –just over the French border in Lille and then in the Belgian city of Bruges. Kagawa was as polite and diplomatic as ever when asked about his missing out but the frustration was there. To be left out of such big games in his own backyard must be a real kick in the teeth for the player.

That there can be a debate as to how good Kagawa is seems strange. Here is a player who won big prizes at club and country level. He headed to one of the world’s biggest clubs as a 21 year-old, itself an impressive show of confidence in himself.

Rarely, if ever, has a player from the east adapted so quickly and impressively in Europe. Turning out in front of 80,000 fans at Borussia Dortmund can’t be easy for a youngster so far from home but the Kobe kid quickly became a fan favourite and was soon scoring goals and opening up defences all over Germany.

There were two seasons and two title successes and the former Cerezo Osaka star played a major part in winning those trophies. It is hard to think of another Asian player who has been so influential in his team winning a major European league title. At the time, there was a sense that there was no limit to what he was going to achieve.

Despite not being taken to the 2010 World Cup –he was on the standby list — a few months later, he was winning the Asian Cup with Japan. After the second German title, there was a move to Manchester United.

Dortmund are a big club with their 80,000 fans at every home game and UEFA Champions League trophies in the trophy cabinet but Manchester United are at a different level. The Old Trafford outfit are, along with Barcelona and Real Madrid, a member of the very elite club.

In terms of profile and exposure, there is little comparison. What happens with the Red Devils is reported and discussed everywhere to a level that just does not happen with the German club.

The transfer was massive news and fans in Japan were thrilled to see one of their own playing for the three-time European champions. The English Premier League title followed and he became the first Asian player to win the leagues in England and Germany.

Kagawa’s time in England started well.

His time in Manchester started much of the debate about whether he is under or over-rated. It didn’t quite go according to plan. In his first season – the last for Sir Alex Ferguson – was OK. There wasn’t as much playing time as hoped for, injuries did not help and the impact wasn’t as great as expected but then, this was a first season in a different league.

Then Ferguson left and David Moyes came in. It wasn’t a happy time for anyone with Kagawa playing less and usually out of position.

Whether it was down to coach, position, luck or player, Kagawa’s time at Manchester United has been deemed as unsuccessful and this has partly come to define him.

A poor display at the 2014 World Cup did not help. Japan in general disappointed but Kagawa was ineffectual and was famously dropped by coach Alberto Zaccheroni for the final game against Colombia.

Then he struggled to get back into his former groove when back at Dortmund in the summer of 2014. There have been flashes and good spells but the former consistency has not yet returned even if the signs this season are promising.

His mentality and strength of character has been questioned, strange for a person who moved halfway across the world at the age of 21 to step way out of his comfort zone to win major titles.

There’s still plenty of time for the player to win over the doubters and the World Cup next summer would be the perfect time – if he can get in the team.

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