The first of many — that was the feeling at the Hongkou Stadium on Wednesday evening as Shinji Kagawa scored the only goal in a match between his new club Manchester United and Shanghai Shenhua. It wasn’t the prettiest of goals but there is plenty of time for aesthetics.
There are more important things at hand for the Japanese international with the magic feet. “I can’t wait for the season to start,” the man himself said earlier this week. “I just want to get playing and scoring goals.”
That is why he was signed by Sir Alex Ferguson. Kagawa promises goals. He scores; he creates and just makes things happen in the final third of the pitch. Playing just behind the striker, as he did in Shanghai, he is going to thrive in England. With the vision, the close control, the work-rate, the energy, awareness and excellent technical ability, he can’t be anything other than a success.
It is not like he was a major gamble. Two seasons in the Bundesliga are fine preparation for the Premier League no matter what the club but when you play a major role in successive league titles for Borussia Dortmund then you can shine anywhere you go.
Twenty-one goals in 49 games would be something to incredibly proud of even if you are an out-and-out striker but for a midfielder, albeit a very attacking one, they are fantastic figures. And when you take into account that this young man had just arrived in a completely different culture on a different continent, then the only surprise is that more clubs were not ready to break the bank (not that United did with an initial fee reportedly around $18 million) for the star.
The noises coming out of the Manchester United camp are positive — there is nothing surprising about that, they were always going to be whatever the situation — but there is a sense that the team and manager are genuinely thrilled at their new acquisition.
“The thing that’s impressed me is that every exercise we do on the training ground, he’s never needed it to be explained,” Ferguson told the club’s official website. “After one demonstration he joins in, as if he’s known the language forever. We know he doesn’t speak the language, but it isn’t a problem. It just goes to show that a good footballer can pick up exactly what’s needed. He’s been fantastic in that respect.”
It was only a matter of time before the old ‘we all speak the language of football’ line was used but it is not always a cliché. Kagawa has a football intelligence that quickly elevated him above the pack in the Bundesliga and Japan. It was something that his coaches challenged back home, at times handicapping the then-teenager during training games. Sometimes he wasn’t allowed to pass, sometimes that was the only thing he could do but what couldn’t be taught was an ability to operate in the tightest of spaces.
The question really isn’t whether the player can adapt to the Premier League. He can and will and should do so in no time at all, it is all about how good he can become. It is about how he can free up Rooney to terrorise defences while helping provide the ammunition with which to do so. It is about being able to play on either side of midfield if need be, providing a welcome addition of flexibility – crucial to a manager like Sir Alex who appreciates the need for rotation in a long season on various fronts.
And it is also, to a much lesser extent, showing that Japanese players can thrive in England. The fact that talent from the country tends to go elsewhere gives rise to the feeling at home and in England that they are not suited to the demands of the Premier League. It is nonsense and when Kagawa starts making headlines and getting among the goals, dispelling that particular myth will be a small bonus.
What it is really about however is just that a young player has started his career at one of the biggest clubs in the world in a perfect way. There is more to come from Shinji Kagawa and millions of fans around will get a taste of his talents and soon.
John Duerden is a prolific football writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian, ESPN, the New York Times, and Sports Illustrated, among many other publications. His column, Top Corner, appears regularly on InterAKTV. Follow Johnny on Twitter for more football discussion.