Shinji Kagawa was hardly an overwhelming success in his two years at Manchester United, but he still won plenty of fans in England, not least when he scored one of the calmest hat-tricks of all time.
One of my favourite useless Premier League facts is that while the competition has only ever had two players named Shinji, both won the title in their first season in England.
While Shinji Okazaki remains an important part of Leicester City’s squad in his third season at the club, his namesake and compatriot burned more brightly but for a much shorter amount of time.
Most players with Shinji Kagawa’s record at Manchester United might find their achievements shrugged off and their time at the club barely even acknowledged.
It says a lot about Kagawa’s quality, then, that United fans still hold him in very high esteem and curse the changes higher up which stood in the way of him becoming a genuine club legend.
In a sense, Kagawa moved to Old Trafford both at the best possible time and at the worst. While much will be made of the wall he hit under David Moyes, he was the exact tonic United needed after narrowly missing out on the title to Manchester City in 2012.
While Robin van Persie’s goals were the difference when it came to accruing enough points to reclaim the title in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season, the introduction of a classy, elegant player like Kagawa was similarly important.
Over the years, United have been blessed with players who are simply so lovely to watch that it becomes impossible for neutrals to hate every facet of the team – something which should be rare for a side so dominant.
Kagawa was supposed to follow in the mould of players like Eric Cantona and Dimitar Berbatov, which explains not only why fans of other clubs enjoyed seeing his name on the teamsheet but also why United fans seemed more than ready to give him as much time as he needed.
That’s a lot harder for a new manager or a struggling manager to do. However, for those 12 months he got under Ferguson, we saw enough magic to make us think he might have thrived in different circumstances.
One of those occasions came on March 2, 2013, in a victory over Norwich City.
Just 11 players scored hat-tricks in the 2012-13 season (Van Persie and Luis Suárez both did so twice), but few did so as calmly as Kagawa.
When you picture an outside-of-the-boot volley, you tend to picture a powerful effort hit across the keeper. At the very least you expect a bit of elevation on the ball. Neither of those things have ever been Kagawa’s style.
If anything it was almost a box-ticking exercise, albeit a pretty one, like a teenager getting the three-point turn out of the way early on their driving test so they can move on to showing off the bits they’re really good at.
Obviously he saved the elevation for the third goal – yes, I’m doing this in a different order to the norm, but you’ll soon see why – the sort of strike which had more in common with the previous iteration of United’s attack than the version of which he was a part.
A few years before Van Persie’s arrival, or even that of Berbatov, watching United was something you did for the fast-paced counters as much as for the brute-forced winners and long-range belters.
The movement of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez was a wonderful thing to see with the trio in full-flight, pulling opposing defenders all over the place to the point that they were too busy manually untwisting their own blood to even think about where the ball might be (in the net, it was always in the net).
Perhaps Kagawa was spurred on by the sight of so many yellow shirts, with something ticking in his mind to invoke the movement and pace of his time in Dortmund, but whatever happened, it worked.
First there was no danger, then Kagawa was one-on-one with Mark Bunn – the bit in the middle, while very deliberate on United’s part, is probably still a blur in the minds of their opponents.
But let’s get back to the main event, the thing you clicked on this link to watch over and over and over.
Put simply, it is not the goal of a man who had only found the net twice for United before that March afternoon. It’s barely even the goal of a midfielder.
Had another player scored this goal, we’d no doubt have seen complaints of arrogance, yet that has never been a word associated with the Japanese international. If his first goal required goalkeeper error and the third owed a bit to lax defending, any complaint here is only trotted out in an effort to explain the inexplicable.
For this, like the hat-trick goal, has its basis in fast-paced attacking play – not as fast-paced, but still far too energetic to make the eventual finish even a consideration for most players. Of course Shinji Kagawa is not, and never has been, most players.
Credit ought to go to Michael Carrick for his perfectly-placed ball over the top and Wayne Rooney for his well-weighted assist, but while the goal could not have been scored without them, this goal could not have arrived from any source other than Kagawa.
As the ball comes across, the three Norwich defenders are all busting a lung to cover, yet Kagawa is already where he needs to be.
While another player might have looked to create space for a finish, Kagawa let the space create itself.
While most might have made the choice between passing into the bottom corner or drilling low beyond Bunn, Kagawa found the third way.
The pause is almost Matrix-esque; the finish less of a slotting away and more a case of just letting the ball take a stroll towards the goalline and beyond. If there’s a more satisfying goal to watch even with the knowledge of how the story ends, I’m yet to see it.
We’ll never know if a few more years under Ferguson would have unlocked even more of Kagawa’s talent, but his failure to score even once under Moyes is simply heartbreaking.
Now back at Dortmund for a second spell, he already has six goals to his name this season – the same number as in his entire time at Old Trafford. Still, none of those will bring a smile to the face in the same manner as that second goal against Norwich.
If Dortmund got the Michelin-starred meal, at least the Premier League got the gold leaf decorating the main course, and that was enough.
By Tom Victor
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