Cult hero Kagawa doesn't disappoint on his Dortmund homecoming
The beaming smile on Shinji Kagawa’s face and the self-confidence to lap up the acclaim of the home fans were clear signs he was back where he wanted to be - in the loving arms of Borussia Dortmund.
It was impossible to avoid Kagawa-fever at Signal Iduna Park as Borussia Dortmund proved too strong for SC Freiburg. Dortmund shirts as far as the eye could see were emblazoned with 'Kagawa 7' on the back.
An excitable posse of Japanese reporters descended on the stadium, many interrupting the pre-match beer-drinking of Dortmund fans for a snap with the latest Kagawa merchandise.
There was even a crowd wearing Pikachu masks, a tribute to another of Japan's finest exports of recent times - Pokemon. It's possible it had nothing to do with football.
Since Kagawa put pen-to-paper on a four-year-deal to return to Germany, there has been a buzzing sense of anticipation around his return to the field.
While his team-mates were on international duty the Japanese star seemed to have a rare-old time at the Dortmund training ground, if the pictures from the club’s official social media networks are anything to go by.
That was transferred to the stadium as if by osmosis on the third weekend of the league season.
Introduced to a raucous applause, it was almost as if Kagawa was holding the 70-odd thousand locals to ransom: cheer me more and I'll give you more. You could almost be forgiven for thinking it was a royal homecoming, rather than a football match.
In the fourth minute he exchanged a quick, fluid one-two with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, just to set the tone. In the ninth minute, the Japan international linked up with Adrian Ramos before spinning balletically away from his marker in a congested midfield with a gorgeous keepie-uppie and pirouette.
Then he, and Dortmund, cranked things up a notch. Twenty minutes in, Kagawa was denied a tap-in after a superbly-timed intervention from Freiburg's Christian Gunter.
It had been 854 days since Kagawa had last pulled on the yellow-and-black – his last league match for the club, ironically, was a 4-0 trouncing of SC Freiburg in May 2012. Unsurprisingly, Kagawa has changed a little in the intervening months. He looks a little rounder, stockier, having packed on the muscle during his time at Old Trafford - and on Saturday's evidence he knows how to use his presence to shield possession.
Kagawa was eager to take on as much responsibility as he could, at times even dropping between the central defenders to pick up possession.
At the midway-point in the first half, a message on the giant Jumbotron screens stated he had won the most challenges (6) of all the players on the sun-soaked turf. Kagawa promptly inspired the opening goal of the afternoon in the 33rd minute.
Keeping the ball within inches of his control, he probed and probed, looking for the tightest of passing spaces in the Freiburg defence. He rolled the ball in for Kevin Grosskreutz who then delivered the assist for Ramos' second league goal of the season.
Eight minutes later, the roof was lifted right off the stadium - the local pigeons would have been well advised to stay away from the Westfalenstadion.
Creeping out of the middle, as though the 25-year-old was after a breather, Kagawa suddenly picked up the ball, aided by a deliberate dummy from Mkhitaryan, and tucked the ball home without hesitation.
The crowd lapped up the moment, while Kagawa enjoyed the adulation. But almost as if he wanted to highlight he was only human, the 25-year-old misplaced a pretty simple ball a few moments later. Playing in a more reserved fashion after the interval, Kagawa slumped to the ground with cramp in the 63rd minute and was quickly replaced by Italian Ciro Immobile.
In addition to a week of full training at Dortmund’s HQ on the outskirts of the city, that hour-or-so of match action will have done Kagawa the world of good. “The feeling can’t really be described,” Kagawa explained to the media post-match who were absorbed by every word.
“It’s really a pleasure to play in this stadium. Most of the time, I had goosebumps on the pitch. When the whole Sudtribune chanted my name, it was an indescribable feeling. It was a very warm welcome.”
It’s fascinating to notice what a difference a comfortable environment can provide for a player. Kagawa’s broad smile had largely deserted him during his rough time in England, where he managed to play just 57 times in the red of Manchester United.
After being blown away by Kagawa’s excellence in Dortmund’s 5-2 DFB Pokal triumph over Bayern Munich in 2012, Sir Alex Ferguson swooped to bring the Japanese midfielder to Manchester for around £10 million.
The Scot’s rigid 4-4-2 formation struggled to accommodate Kagawa – a player who thrives between defensive lines and has that little burst of acceleration to get on the dangerous side of an opponent. He sat in Berlin’s sprawling Olympic Stadium, thrilled, like the rest of us, by his talents.
Ferguson, however, wasn’t alone in having problems finding a role for Kagawa. During David Moyes’ ill-fated reign as United boss, Kagawa may have increased his appearance record, but appeared to be completely out of his depth in a side that had less quality, experience and momentum in the league.
Most believed that Moyes’ successor, the enigmatic Dutchman Louis van Gaal, would find a way to appreciate his talents. Van Gaal, though, was forthright in his opinions of the midfielder and suggested in pre-season that he wasn’t an adequate fit to play in his 3-5-2 system. That paved the way for Dortmund to seal the deal.
The perfect fit
The £6m transfer fee was thrashed out within a couple of days, as Dortmund strengthened their championship charge – and plugged some of the holes left by departures to both other clubs and the physio room.
Kagawa, as shown on Saturday, will need some time to respond to the rigours of a Bundesliga campaign – but the early evidence suggests the 25-year-old Kobe-born player is still a perfect fit for Dortmund. He’s almost the archetypal, modern attacking player: dynamic, has acquired an almost flawless technical aspect to his game at high-pace and can interchange across the attacking line.
That attacking front-line already has the peerless Armenian Mkhitaryan and 24-year-old Marco Reus – he’ll miss the next three or four weeks – and weaponry in the shape of Aubameyang, Immobile and Ramos.
Next up, Arsenal in the Champions League.