Kagawa is back to his best under a new manager and in a new position
DORTMUND, Germany -- Long gone are the days, in which Shinji Kagawa was filmed by a Japanese camera team in Dortmund's shopping street, slurping a coffee at the gelateria "Dolce Vita" and flicking through a football magazine, where he was depicted as the best player of the German Bundesliga on its front page.
The then-21-year-old had conquered the German top flight in a storm after joining the Westfalenstadion from second-division side Cerezo Osaka for the negligible fee of €350,000 in the summer of 2010. He scored eight goals in his first 17 league appearances before a broken foot suffered at the Asia Cup temporarily brought his ascent to a halt, ruling him out for the second half of the 2010-11 season.
Seven years and an unsuccessful two-year stint at Manchester United later, the hype around the Japanese international has perceptibly abated. Even though Kagawa never lost his magical first touch or the elusive turns around his own axis, his form was too inconsistent in the years since rejoining Dortmund in 2014 to once again attract offers from Europe's elite.
After providing an impressive 13 goals and assists apiece in 2015-16, Kagawa struggled to find his name regularly in the starting lineup under Thomas Tuchel the season after. Under Peter Bosz this season, the 28-year-old remained a fringe player, not playing a single Bundesliga match over the full distance until Bosz's final match against Werder Bremen in December.
Nevertheless, the Japanese international always remained a valuable asset in Dortmund's game, even if contributions on the score sheet did not reflect that. Kagawa's footballing intelligence has always set him apart from teammates, especially in his movements to stifle the opponent's build-up play. His positioning and his runs in pressing and counter-pressing, paired with his diligent work rate, are attributes that remain a consistent help.
Those traits were most visible when BVB's form took a nosedive under Bosz. While the Black and Yellows were quick to turn stale and complacent once setbacks in games occurred, Kagawa remained one of few players who showed resilience on the field.
Over the course of 2017 until now, the midfielder is going through a similar development as his teammate Mario Gotze by morphing more and more from an attacking midfielder into a more central role on the pitch. Under Bosz and Peter Stoger, Kagawa has mused the conductor in central midfield behind the front three in a 4-3-3 system.
And at the beginning of February, it is safe to say that the 28-year-old has once again rediscovered his best form in the new role. Since the new manager took over, Kagawa has not missed a minute of football and repaid the gesture by directly contributing to five of 10 goals via three goals and two assists.
Although his scoring output is only sticking out due to the misfiring of his teammates, his turnaround in form is significant under Stoger. Since matchday 15, Kagawa is averaging 2.45 key passes per 90 minutes. He averaged 0.55 in the 14 matchdays beforehand and never averaged a number that high in any of his domestic campaigns before. Especially, when Dortmund are playing on the transition, Kagawa's ability to control the ball and pass it on in one flowing move, often going past an opponent in the process, has helped BVB to create chances in 2018.
At Thursday's news conference ahead of Dortmund's home match against Hamburg on Saturday, Stoger found praise for the playmaker, saying: "Shinji is a reliable player. You always know what you're going to get from him. He is diligent, has a great technique and is a threat in front of goal. He bundles many qualities."
Kagawa has managed to understand Stoger's penchant for a more risk-averse approach opposed to his predecessors, taking more care of the ball than ever. The midfielder is dispossessed only 0.68 times per 90 minutes since matchday 15 -- it was 1.29 between matchday 1 and 14. It's a statistic that not only describes Kagawa's newfound role under Stoger, but also his development as a player overall. In his first season at Dortmund in 2010-11, the Japanese international was dispossessed as often as 2.84 times in 90 minutes.
It is now down to Kagawa to preserve his form and continue to build on it until the end of the season. In partnership with Gotze and Julian Weigl, the Ruhr Side can build synergies on a level that matches the club's ambitions.
BVB CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke hinted at yet another major overhaul in the summer in an interview with FAZ earlier this week, shifting from technically gifted players to bringing in more players with an "absolute winning mentality."
If Kagawa remains as pivotal as he has been throughout the end of 2017 and early 2018, Dortmund will be happy to rebuild their team around the veteran midfielder and make him a centrepiece of the puzzle together with Gotze, who should be similarly keen to see his long-term future at the Westfalenstadion.
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.