Shinji Kagawa, the Japanese superstar who once held the keys to the Ferrari that was Borussia Dortmund’s back-to-back-title-winning team, has returned to the Bundesliga. After an unsuccessful two-year vacation at Manchester United, he re-signed with his old team. But he’s returned to a team and a league much changed. Dortmund signed several players during his sabbatical, some of whom were specific replacements for Kagawa.
Outside Dortmund, Kagawa won’t have to deal as much with the unfamiliar as he’ll have to reckon with his own influence.
Since the close of the 2010-11 Bundesliga season–Kagawa’s first in Europe–11 Japanese players have come to Germany and played in the Bundesliga. Kagawa wasn’t the first Japanese player in Germany–that honor goes to Yasuhiko Okudera, who played for Köln and Werder Bremen in the 1970s and 1980s–but it’s hard to deny that Kagawa’s stardom got many a Bundesliga scout on an airplane to Toyko.
Cynics argue that German teams bought Japanese players as a means to access Japan’s huge market. The players have no doubt helped do that. But those cynics must not watch many Bundesliga games, because the thing these players share, besides their nationality, is that they can ball.
Takashi Inui, Eintracht Frankfurt’s itsy-bitsy playmaker, is a prime example. He left Cerezo Osaka for Germany in 2011. At Cerezo, he and Kagawa were teammates, and the two share a similar skillset, most notably their ridiculous close ball control. Inui spent his first season with Second Bundesliga team VfL Bochum, but after just one year, he took the step up with Eintracht Frankfurt. In 2012, Inui burned the Bundesliga right to the ground. His four assists and six goals don’t really capture his influence. With Inui a key player, Eintracht went from a newly promoted side straight into the Europa League. That season, I watched Inui drag Frankfurt back from a two goal deficit to tie defending champion Dortmund 3-3. It was one of the best matches, and individual performances, I’ve ever seen live.
The list goes on. Although loan stints at Hoffenheim and Bayern Munich didn’t work out, over the last two seasons Takashi Usami showed glimpses of his individual skill and pace on the ball while in Germany. The 22-year-old is now back in Japan, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he came back at some point. And then there’s Shinji Okazaki. A striker who has played in Germany since 2010, Okazaki is far and away Mainz’s best player. This season, he’s also Mainz’s only hope.
But Japan’s influence on German soccer extends beyond attacking play. Hiroki Sakai, Hannover’s right back, joined from Kashiwa Reysol in 2012 and has done an admirable job of replacing Team USA and Hannover legend Steve Cherundolo. Hajime Hosogai, another defensive player, signed with Bayer Leverkusen in 2011. After a stint at Augsburg, he seems to have found a home anchoring Hertha Berlin’s midfield.
Early last year, I asked Tom Byer, the American coach credited with discovering Shinji Kagawa, why he thought Japanese players fit so well in the German league. He explained that there were cultural and technical reasons. Japanese culture tends to value the group over the individual, meaning Japanese players are team oriented, unselfish, and hard working. Who wouldn’t want that kind of player? But the Bundesliga places a premium on technical play (above say, brute force or defensive solidity) and that’s where the Japanese players really shine. Byer played a major role in creating Japan’s youth soccer apparatus, which employs a technique-first approach, focused on close ball control and using both feet.
That technique is something Rio Ferdinand noticed about Kagawa when the two were teammates at Man United. After training together in the summer of 2012, the former England center back said of of his new teammate, “He’s quick, he’s sharp, he has great awareness. He plays off both feet.”
On Saturday, Kagawa will be jumping back into the Bundesliga with both of those feet. With Marco Reus injured, he might even start (assuming he shakes off an injury). Dortmund’s supporters and enemies will tune in to see how he performs with BvB’s new runners up front, Ciro Immobile, Adrián Ramos, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang–and even the young American, Joe Gyau, should he crack the first team (and I think he will at some point this season)–who all arrived after Kagawa left for England.
Under the tutelage of his guru and good friend, Dortmund coach Jürgen Klopp, Kagawa will probably do well. Klopp can get the best out of his players in a way few other coaches can. So the question of whether Kagawa will regain his form isn’t as interesting as it sounds. Maybe the better question is: How will Kagawa stack up when he faces Inui, Sakai and Hosogai? How will the master fare when he takes on his apprentices?