If Shinji Kagawa‘s time in Europe was to be described with a footballing cliché, then it is perhaps most fitting to label it “a tale of two halves”.
On Wednesday, his 13-year spell abroad officially came to an end as his return to boyhood club Cerezo Osaka — where his journey in professional football started back in 2006 — was confirmed.
Kagawa returns to the J1 League with a glittering résumé.
He was a two-time Bundesliga champion by the age of 23, playing a pivotal role in Borussia Dortmund’s back-to-back triumphs under Jurgen Klopp between 2010-12.
He then became Manchester United’s first Japanese player and won the Premier League in his debut campaign at Old Trafford, thus claiming three consecutive league titles in as many seasons.
By this stage, he also had a German Cup to his name and, on the international stage, was already an AFC Asian Cup champion with Japan in 2011.
But while his move to United started in promising fashion — he was the first Asian to net a hat-trick in the Premier League when he did so against Norwich in March 2013 — even if he did have to fight for his place in the starting XI, it soon went downhill.
The retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson and the arrival of David Moyes saw Kagawa gradually marginalized as the English giants adopted a different game plan under their new manager.
In came Marouane Fellaini and a more direct approach. The No. 10 role, more often associated with the point guard-in-chief, became the job of a drumming ram under Moyes — which perfectly suited Fellaini.
A crafty technician like Kagawa soon became the back-up plan, more often found on the bench rather than the field.
Kagawa would eventually depart England to return to Dortmund, but they were now not the same team as they were with Klopp long gone.
The Japanese point guard did have one standout season back at Signal Iduna Park in 2015-16 when he netted 13 goals in 46 matches in all competition while he also picked up another German Cup the season after, but both he and Dortmund never reached the same heights they did in their previous alliance.
Kagawa’s final season at Dortmund even saw him sent out on loan to Besiktas in Turkey, while he even dropped down a tier to play in Spain’s second division with Real Zaragoza, before underwhelming spells in Greece and Belgium with PAOK and Sint-Truiden respectively.
It would not be unfair to claim that the second half of Kagawa’s time in Europe was a far cry from the success he achieved earlier on.
And yet, that hardly means that his 13 years were ultimately not a success.
He was an influential figure behind three league triumphs in Europe’s top five competitions, playing for two giants of world football.
He ultimately finished his international career with 97 caps to his name, having featured at the FIFA World Cup twice in 2014 and 2018.
And, at a time when players from Asian were still largely stereotyped as hardworking and tactically disciplined role players, Kagawa’s undeniable talent gave a reminder that they could also be game changers in the mold of Hidetoshi Nakata and Shunsuke Nakamura before him.
Kagawa could still have one final flourish back with Cerezo, a club with lofty ambitions and the history to boot — but who seem to be struggling to reestablish themselves among Japan’s elite.
And when he looks back on his 13 years in Europe, Kagawa should be proud of what he achieved.
Even if it was a tale of two halves.