Shinji Kagawa created history a week ago by becoming the first Asian player to score a hattrick in the Premier League.
While the league has been blessed with players from Asia before - Inamoto, Park Ji-Sung and Park Chu-Young to name but a few - I feel that the record is a feat he deserves as he is not only the most talented Asian the Premier League has ever seen but arguably the most technically gifted to emerge from Asia since Hidetoshi Nakata.
I know what you are thinking. Given Kagawa’s body of work for United thus far, it would be a disservice to already consider him more talented than Park Ji-Sung. However, it is the difference between the two players, which for me demonstrates the brilliance of Kagawa. Let me be clear though, this is not a dig at Park in any way shape or form.
Park Ji-Sung was exactly the type of player you wanted when playing in big matches. Unfazed by pressure, Park managed to conduct his attacking and defensive duties impeccably against Europe’s elite. What made him such a key man for Manchester United was his flexibility to play across the midfield and fill in whenever called upon.
Such was his graft and ability to contribute defensively that his attacking prowess was often overlooked. Without the need for unnecessary flash play he was able to support the attack when required. Sadly for him his time at United had to come to an end. This is because the strengths in his game were built on his ability to hustle and play at full tilt right through to the final whistle, but with age his legs went and he was no longer able to perform at the same level which earned him such acclaim.
Kagawa on the other hand plays with a very contrasting style to that of Park Ji-Sung. While Kagawa has the ability to play across the midfield, his best position is as a seconda punta. The nuances of this position are not ones that have traditionally gained fanfare in England. However, when executed with brilliance it presents the opportunity for a player to become a fan favourite.
Kagawa is better suited than someone like Park to play in this position because while Park would allow for a higher press up the field, it is Kagawa’s vision and movement, which makes him a natural here. Before Kagawa even receives possession you can notice that he is already looking to see what his next move will be. Furthermore, much like Tom Cleverley, he also helps quicken the tempo of United’s play while improving their ball retention. That being said, perhaps the best facet of his play is that he always looks to make forward progression
What especially helps him in this aspect is his off-the-ball movement. The instinct of passing and moving is inherent within him, but it is the intelligence of his runs that separates him from others. He works the space between midfield and attack marvellously and when the attack is perfectly poised, he has the ability to make perfectly timed runs into the box, thus exploiting any available space to put himself into a scoring position.
However, this would all be meaningless without composure. A classic example of this at the moment is Nikica Jelavic, whose movement in the final third presents him with great scoring opportunities but he lacks the confidence and composure at the moment to convert these chances. Kagawa on the other hand possesses remarkable poise and is capable of making things look simple yet sublime.
Each of the goals in his hattrick reflects this in my opinion:
For the first goal the ball falls fortuitously into his path but rather than simply put his laces through it he uses the outside of his boot to beat the keeper at the near post. The second goal may have looked simpler on first sight. However, this was no ordinary tap in. Instead, Kagawa passes it into the back of the net with an exquisite nonchalance, drawing parallels to Pirlo’s ‘Panenka’ last summer. Yet it was his final goal that was the perfect encapsulation of all of his strengths. He drops the ball off short to Welbeck before continuing his run, timing his burst into the box perfectly to receive Rooney’s through ball just before beating the keeper with a delicate chip.
These goals are in essence what the Manchester United faithful expected to see throughout the season when Kagawa was signed. Unfortunately, injury has prevented him from doing this on a regular basis.
So with the injuries now in the rear view mirror, you can expect that with a season of English football under his belt that he will be one to look out for in United’s attack next season.
image: © Marcel Sigg