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An examination of potential Manchester United transfer target Shinji Kagawa

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Editor's Note: This was originally published 8 days ago but with Borussia Dortmund set to clash with Bayern Munich in the DFB Pokal final (Saturday | 7:00pm BST, 2:00pm EST), I decided to front page this piece on Shinji Kagawa. The match will be a good opportunity to check out the United transfer target.

There's been increasing speculation that Borussia Dortmund (BVD) star Shinji Kagawa might be on his way out of Westfalenstadion at season's end and the recent news that he has yet to agree to a new contract offer from the club is seemingly ominous for the German champions. His current contract expires after the 2012/13 season and if he doesn't agree to a contract extension sometime soon, it's highly likely that he will be leaving the Bundesliga club during the upcoming summer transfer window. Kagawa has continually been linked with a move to the Premier League and more specifically, Manchester United. Here's what BVD Sporting Director Michael Zorc had to say about the matter on April 29:

"As of today he is not willing to extend his contract. I spoke to Shinji and his advisor last week and he is not willing to extend his contract with Borussia Dortmund. We have a Plan A and B and we will follow one of them. We won't gamble, but he has a specific career plan and he plans to play in England. We have to accept that, even if we don't find it good. While there is no economic need to sell him, he has a certain market value so we have to follow this with an economic sense. We will continue to have dialogue, but if another club expresses an interest then we will listen."

- Zorc | Source: Sky Deutschland

According to Bild -- the German media outlet that is best connected to the football clubs in the country -- United have reportedly offered Kagawa a three-year contract for €6 million a season. They also reported that the transfer fee could be in the region of £15 million although there have been rumblings in the past 24 hours or so that suggest United may be able to secure player's services for a fee of £7 million. Anyway, that's some of the background on these transfer rumors and trying to determine the validity of it all isn't the point of this piece. Instead, I merely hope to introduce you to Kagawa, provide a scouting report on him, and offer an opinion on how he might fit in at United if he were to trek over to Old Trafford this summer.

Introducing Shinji Kagawa

Kagawa made the move to Dortmund from Japanese side Cerezo Osaka in the summer of the 2010 for a bargain transfer fee of €350,000. The release clause was relatively small because his contract was constructed with the idea that a move to Europe would be easy if such an opportunity presented itself. The impact of the Japanese international was immediate in the Bundesliga.

Kagawa's fantastic start included 8 goals in 18 league appearances before a broken metatarsal, an injury that occurred while on international duty during the Asian Cup in January 2011, ended his season prematurely. However, his mighty influence on BVD's surprising championship campaign was evident when he was named into the Bundesliga's best XI at season's end -- this despite only featuring for half of the season. His sophomore season in Germany has been superb as well as he has again been a key player for manager Jurgen Klopp during BVD's repeat season as champions. Kagawa also has 29 caps for Japan.

Scouting Report

In Klopp's 4-2-3-1 system, and in Japan's similar formation, Kagawa is capable of playing anywhere along the attacking-midfield line. Primarily though for BVD, and especially this season, he tends to be deployed in the middle and in behind striker Robert Lewandowski. The cohesiveness and intensity of BVD's pressing is incredibly impressive and because of it's aggressiveness, Kagawa's positioning often resembles that of a secondary striker rather than a number 10 due to his pressing of an opposition's center-back. The tactical diagram below from BVD's recent encounter with Bayern Munich -- which was essentially a Bundesliga title-decider -- gives an idea of the space that he typically operates in. Rather than drop off onto a holding-midfielder like many number 10's do when their side don't have possession, he was darting forward instead and closing down a central-defender like many strikers do.

On the ball, the 5'8" Kagawa is dynamic as his terrific close-control and his class technique allows him to be a skillful dribbler (2.07 successful dribbles/game) while that same skill-set in combination with imagination allows him to pick out clever passes (1.80 chances created/game per Opta's definition | 7 assists). He has an eye for goal as well as his haul of 13 league goals from 2.06 shot attempts per game helps exemplify. His positioning tends to be central and even when deployed as a wide midfielder, he rarely attempts crosses (0.87 cross attempts per game) as he'll look to come inside into the space between the lines. His understanding of space is superb and this is displayed when one pays close attention to his intelligent off-the-ball movement.

* All statistics from the previous paragraph are from his 30 Bundesliga appearances thus far this season.

It's probably a bit simplistic to define Kagawa as either a number 10 or as a secondary striker. Rather than labels, it's probably best to think of him as a versatile attacking player that likes to operate in the space between the lines -- whether that be from a central position or from out wide. He can create goals but he may desire to score them even more as evident by his impressive scoring record in the Bundesliga (21 goals in 48 appearances) -- and this despite not being a lead striker. His time with the brilliant Klopp, and the prominent role that the Japanese international has played in the manager's system over two seasons, can only have increased his tactical intelligence. Kagawa thriving in such a demanding pressing system hints at an impressive work-rate as well.

How might Kagawa fit in at United?

As I recently examined with potential transfer target Nicolas Gaitan, it's not entirely clear what Kagawa's role might be if he were to make the move to the club. United's preferred system -- especially for domestic matches -- is a 4-4-1-1ish one where Wayne Rooney tends to play behind a lead striker. In addition, the attack is usually supplemented by two traditional wingers and two relatively deep central-midfielders. In that system, Kagawa could be a deputy for Rooney or he could even play in behind the versatile United talisman at times in a strike partnership. Kagawa could also be deployed as a nominal wide player -- he often plays on the left for Japan -- and when he moves inside during attacking moves, a player like Antonio Valencia or Nani could stretch the attacking space by waiting to receive near the right touchline. This could result in an interesting balance for the United attack.

If United do get back to playing more in a 4-3-3/4-5-1 system next season, one that has often been used in recent seasons when manager Sir Alex Ferguson opts for midfield structure against formidable foes, then Kagawa is an option to play in the front three or as the most advanced player in a central-midfield trio. His pace, drive, and versatility may be vital for providing some dynamism into counterattacks for this system. In fact, if Kagawa were in need of some time so that he could adjust to the physical Premier League -- which he might not though -- then he may thrive in European competition when the squad is rotated as this system tends to be used more for continental competition.


If the rumors of a £7 million transfer fee are true, then acquiring Kagawa is certainly a must. The value is simply too great for a continually improving 23-year-old that has thrived the past two seasons for the champions of the world's 3rd or 4th best league. Even for a potential fee in the region of £15 million, he may still present good value. Although it would probably be overly optimistic to ever assess him as a potentially world-class player, he's certainly a very good young player and his spirited demeanor perhaps hints at a player that is ambitious. In the best case scenario, he continues to thrive and he becomes one of the building blocks as Fergie continues to build what he hopes is his last great team. In the worst case scenario, Kagawa likely proves to be a useful squad member at a reasonable price -- a price that likely would quickly be reimbursed due to the obvious appeal that he would have in a fruitful Asian market -- and he'll provide Fergie more tactical options as United doesn't really have this sort of player in the current squad. United's presence on the world's biggest continent is already massive and it could only grow by signing Japan's best player. Put me in the group that would be very supportive of this potential move -- even though this writer is a South Korea national team supporter (the arch-rivals of Japan) :)