Manchester United began the long-overdue revamping of their midfield yesterday by agreeing a deal to sign Shinji Kagawa. The creative Japanese international will join from Borussia Dortmund, pending a medical and work permit, for a fee thought to be £12million.
United have just completed their first season without winning a major trophy since 2004/05, and failed to reach the Champions League second round for the first time in six years. They struggled in midfield all year, with Tom Cleverley limited by injuries. Paul Scholes had to be brought back from retirement in January.
Kagawa is not the next Roy Keane but he will be a vital imaginative presence in United's midfield. He played two seasons at Dortmund – they won the Bundesliga in each of them – deployed behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1 system. In the league last year, Kagawa recorded 13 goals and eight assists in 29 starts. Over his two seasons, he scored 21 goals in just 46 Bundesliga starts.
That kind of incision is an area where United have lacked relative to Manchester City, who have David Silva and Samir Nasri. But Eurosport's Bundesliga commentator Ian Holyman believes Kagawa will make a real difference. "He's fantastic, he's great on the ball," he told The Independent. "He plays nice, neat little passes on the edge of the box to break teams down. He's really a fantastic player to have in that sort of area, he can work through the tightest of defences."
Sir Alex Ferguson tends to play 4-5-1 most often in Europe, and, in general, 4-4-2 in domestic football. Kagawa's gifts, though, are much better used in the former. He might be too slight to play centrally in a 4-4-2 – although Luka Modric has adapted to it – and he is not a winger either.
"He's not the biggest, he's not the strongest," Holyman said. "He is not going to beat a full-back and whip a cross in. This is a guy who excels at the real fine arts in and around the box, slipping in the central striker or playing a pass and finishing one himself. He is difficult to knock off the ball but it really is his speed of foot and speed of thought on the edge of the box which causes teams problems."
Kagawa arrived at Dortmund in 2010, at the age of 21, from Japanese side Cerezo Osaka for just €350,000. He settled in quickly, but missed five months of the season with a foot injury. Last season, though, he was even better, carrying more of the creative burden with Nuri Sahin sold to Real Madrid and Mario Götze out for four months. "He was the creative fulcrum of that Dortmund side," said Holyman.
In Manchester, he will have a new set of pressures to deal with but Kagawa will not be distracted by playing for England's highest-profile club. "He is not a personality," said Japanese football journalist Fumi Saito. "He is a down-to-earth guy, a really normal guy, he is not cocky."
He is unlikely to get sucked into the Wilmslow celebrity circuit, either. "There is no doubt that he has got the work ethic," said Holyman. "His head will not be turned by nightclubs and girls. He is highly professional."
A bigger challenge will be the physical adjustment, but having conquered Germany, it should be possible. "Lots of Japanese players have struggled in England with the pace of the Premier League, the physical size and the tackling," said Saito.
"But he is making the right step, I don't think he can get too surprised. I don't think he is going to struggle as much as other Japanese players in the Premier League."
United had just been beaten to the signing of Eden Hazard, but Holyman does not see a gulf between them. "Kagawa is the equal of Hazard. It is an excellent move for all concerned. United have got a very good player."