Funny thing, Shinji Kagawa’s return from an extended summer break; one that just happens to coincide with the third leg of Manchester United’s extensive summer tour. As David Moyes’ players touched down at Tokyo’s Narita airport on Sunday night so United’s Japanese international joined the squad having sat out matches in Thailand and Australia. Cynics might point to a marketing opportunity captured. Rant couldn’t possibly comment.
Those of a more skeptical bent might also note Kagawa’s extended press conference in the Japanese capital on Monday, with Moyes leaving to take training while the player answered questions. Of all the priorities on tour Rant had presumed training was the last of them.
Nor, it has to be said, was the club’s other Confederations Cup participant – Javier Hernández – anywhere to be seen. Time off, it seems, is a selective necessity.
This is c’est la vie on tour of course, with preparations for the season ahead now firmly a second class citizen to commercial realities. After all, with United’s New York shareholders the club’s primary financial stakeholders, the eight figures this tour will add to the club’s bottom line are of interest.
But for Kagawa any pride he feels about United’s fixture against his old club must come secondary to physical preparation for the campaign to come. This pre-season is particularly important for the 24-year-old Japanese playmaker, who is both on the cusp of a huge personal opportunity, and the precipice of failure at Old Trafford.
After all Kagawa’s performances in his first United season were exceptional only in glimpses, with the former Borussia Dortmund star spending large spells on the sidelines injured or out-of-position.
It is a history of injury that presents a genuine concern, with the player appearing in just 26 matches in all competitions for United last season. During three campaigns in Europe Kagawa has suffered a serious knee injury, a ruptured ankle ligament, and a metatarsal fracture that kept the midfielder in treatment for five months. He has never completed more than 45 games in a season during seven years as a professional.
Those who know the player well are sure there is far more to come though. In this there is an opportunity, of course, especially with with Wayne Rooney seemingly on his way out of the club before the window closes at the end of August. Indeed, Kagawa could use the remaining fixtures this summer to force his way into Moyes’ thinking as Robin van Persie’s natural foil in a new look United attack.
No better time to forge a close personal relationship, then. That first encounter between player and manager came on Monday, with the pair catching a moment in the car ahead of a joint media conference publicising United’s fixtures with Yokohama F. Marinos on Tuesday, and Kagawa’s old club Cerezo Osaka on Friday.
“Today I met David Moyes for the first time. We had a good talk in the car. We still need to spend more time to get to know each other but I’m looking forward to building our relationship,” the player told international and local media.
“As a player, I want to give my best in each game and give a good impression to the manager. It’s true I had some difficult moments last year but gradually through the year I could participate for longer periods. It doesn’t matter if I play as a ‘number 10′ or not. I’m very confident I can play in any position for the team.”
In that Kagawa is only a little disingenuous. Tactics do, of course, matter, with the player far more naturally suited to performing as the team’s fulcrum at ’10′ and not marginalised on the wings. Although Kagawa’s pitch-time increased in the spring it did so usually from the left, although the player is never one to find chalk on his boots.
Deployed freely in the centre – and with Rooney surely off to pastures greener in west London – Kagawa may even help the new manager evolve United’s style of play. After all, with United only marginally deviating from a 4-4-2 last season, Sir Alex Ferguson’s team was at times a little predictable.
But if Sir Alex didn’t fully understand the player, whom United acquired last summer for around £14 million, then his former manager Jurgen Klopp surely does. The Champions League finalist is in little doubt how United will gain most from Kagawa’s time at the club.
“Shinji Kagawa is one of the best players in the world, and he now plays 20 minutes at Manchester United – on the left wing! My heart breaks. Really, I have tears in my eyes, ” Klopp told The Guardian in May.
“Central midfield is Shinji’s best role. He’s an offensive midfielder with one of the best noses for goal I ever saw. But for most Japanese people it means more to play for Man United than Dortmund. We cried for 20 minutes, in each other’s arms, when he left.”
In that there is a salutatory lesson for Moyes, although it comes with no guarantee that it will be heard. Not that the Glaswegian is likely to break down in tears, but there is a question whether the 50-year-old will be bold enough to deploy Kagawa between the lines of midfield and attack.
After all, Mikel Arteta and Steven Pienaar, playmakers both, were frequently deployed on the wing under Moyes’ stewardship, while the Scot often used Marouane Fellaini ‘in the hole’ – a tactic that normally provoked Everton’s dogs of war to launch repeated waves of direct balls at the Belgian’s substantial frame.
Moreover, with United chasing Barcelona’s Cesc Fàbregas and prepared, it is reported, to spend heavily on Gareth Bale, Kagawa’s starting berth in the centre is at risk. Both potential acquisitions played much of last season as advanced central midfielders, leaving Kagawa to benefit should the club instead pull off an audacious bid for Real Madrid’s Luka Modrić.
It is a scenario, albeit one in the spirit of fanciful speculation that is so common this time of year, that edged a step closer on Monday, with Barcelona once again rejecting United’s bid for the Spaniard.
Yet, the new United manager has revealed little of his tactical thinking in the 22 days since he was officially crowned as Ferguson’s heir; less still about what, if anything, he has planned for the club’s Japanese star.
“I know a little about him as a player,” said Moyes on Monday.
“Sir Alex spoke in glowing terms about Shinji and how good a player he is. I’ve just met him today, so we’re getting to know each other. I’m trying to learn Japanese and he’s trying to understand my Scottish.
“It was his first season in the Premier League last year. He’s a young player so we hope his development continues. I look forward to working with him and hopefully he has a really good season coming up.”
That, of course, depends on Kagawa playing more frequently for United and in a role that suits his plentiful skills. Neither is guaranteed.
But then again nor has the midfielder’s opportunity been so great – and that has little to do with those sponsor commitments that so dominated Kagawa’s return to United action on Monday.