When it comes to solving United’s midfield problem, Old Trafford has had its fair share of false dawns. Robin van Persie may have grabbed the headlines in the summer, but judging by the squad’s strengths and weaknesses, Kagawa looked to be the more vital capture for the club’s long-term success and development.
Upon signing the Japanese playmaker, Sir Alex stated that he would need time – a season at least to adapt to the “physicality” of the English game. “Next year he’ll be better” Ferguson told the press in February.
Yet the tabloids have already begun spinning their usual yarn of Premier League failure, with Kagawa linked with a loss-cutting return to Dortmund in the gossip columns and rumour round-ups.
This knee jerking, short-termism is unfair of course, but such a climate of dismissive scepticism is a worrying spectacle for Manchester United fans considering the club’s past management of its more esoteric transfer buys.
The spectres of Karel Poborksy and Juan Sebastian Veron hang heavy over glamorous foreign purchases finding their way in the land of Stoke City’s brutalism and Big Sam Allardyce.
When handed the opportunity this year, Kagawa has shon in his favoured position behind the strikers. Against Norwich he showed how deadly he can be in front of goal, while his ability to speed up the passing transitions and retain the ball was evident against Real Madrid and in the title winner against Aston Villa.
Played in his best position, Kagawa could become United’s lithe David Silva or Juan Mata type creator, but his presence in the hole is far from assured. With an ever slowing Wayne Rooney dropping deeper as his professionalism declines, chances to play the Number 10 role are at a premium.
Just as Veron struggled to displace Paul Scholes and David Beckham eclipsed Poborksy, is there a danger that Kagawa may wilt under the shadow of Rooney? Without the game time to prove himself, momentum may shift, dragging him down and out of the club.
Sir Alex’s title-winning logic is impenetrable at the best of times, yet his treatment of players bought to add fantasy to his teams has often been the most difficult to understand. For the most crucial games and competitions it seems as though Ferguson hesitates to commit to his more artistic players, preferring to trust in a more predictable cast of workhorses, soldiers and grafters.
Perhaps his transfer market dreams are sometimes out of step with the realities of the team-building project at hand. Like Poborksy and Veron, Dimitar Berbatov arrived as an incredibly gifted new recruit who in the end suffered for his art; thrown into a role without the support or special attention he needed to thrive.
Similarly, Kagawa looks to be a player worthy of building a whole attacking unit around rather than dumping into a pre-set system. Imbued with the skill and ideas to be a key hub of creativity and magic he is far too special to be chucked out onto the wing like some generic, flair filled left-footer.
There is a sense that this may be third time lucky for Sir Alex however, who has evolved as a tactician of late. Gone are the days of Roy Keane-esque dominators waging war through the middle of the park. Today, his teams are anchored by the ball hoarding of Michael Carrick with short-passing one-to-ones becoming a welcome feature of United’s attack when Cleverley, Anderson and Welbeck are on the field. Ferguson has come to invest his faith in possession football in recent years rather than the fast turnovers of the counter-attack, and Kagawa is perfect candidate to take the team’s clever passing inter-play to new heights.
Next year, with talk of Lewandowski and Falcao arriving at Old Trafford, and United’s wing play looking tired and predictable as the club’s Plan A, Sir Alex must trust in the brilliance of Shinji Kagawa to lead the club into a new era of domination through intelligent, possession football.