It cannot have been easy for Shinji Kagawa to leave Manchester United, but if his performance in his first game since returning to Borussia Dortmund is anything to go by, the move is definitely in his best interests.
Kagawa scored a goal and set up another in Dortmund’s 3-1 win over Freiburg on Saturday, marking an impressive second debut for the club that he left to join United in June 2012 only to return at the end of last month when things went sour at Old Trafford.
“Kagawa moved like a fish caught in a net,” ran a match report in Sunday’s Nikkan Sports. “His presence in front of goal was unlike anything you could have imagined during his Manchester United days. His goal came from the kind of perfect combination he used to be involved in in his first spell at the club.”
Of course nothing can be taken for granted from just one game, but Kagawa’s performance will offer huge encouragement to a player whose promising start to his United career turned out to be a false dawn.
Kagawa was not helped at United by the retirement of Alex Ferguson, the manager who brought him to the club and who clearly believed in his talent. His replacement, David Moyes, never looked fully convinced of Kagawa’s abilities, and when results started to go bad and Moyes leaned even more heavily on United’s veterans, the writing was on the wall.
That is not to say that the player himself bears no responsibility for his failure to make an impact at Old Trafford, however. Too often Kagawa allowed himself to be pushed around in a league where a certain degree of physicality is required, while an alarming loss of confidence asked questions of his mental fortitude.
That was never more evident than at this summer’s World Cup, where a woefully anonymous performance in Japan’s 2-1 opening defeat to Cote d’Ivoire prompted manager Alberto Zaccheroni to drop him for the team’s next game against Greece.
“I lost a battle with myself,” Kagawa was quoted as saying after the Cote d’Ivoire game. “There was pressure and nerves and at the start I made mistakes, and I’m taking a good look at myself. I couldn’t get into a good rhythm and was beaten psychologically.”
In this context, returning to Dortmund makes perfect sense. Critics may argue that Kagawa has taken the easy way out by rejoining a club where he is adored by fans, players and manager alike, but after such a bruising experience in England, a safe haven could be just what he needs.
If Kagawa can refind the fearless verve that made his first stint at Dortmund such a success, the benefit to Japan’s national team will be obvious. New manager Javier Aguirre does not seem like the type to indulge underperforming stars on reputation alone, and the team could use an immediate injection of quality with the Asian Cup less than four months away.
Kagawa’s move to United — where he became the first Japanese player to join the club —was a huge source of pride for fans. His failure to make the grade was painful, but at the same time the player must be applauded for having the courage to take the hit and move on.
Sometimes it is necessary to take a step back in order to progress. Europe’s top teams may not have heard the last of Shinji Kagawa.