Shinji Kagawa looks a player reborn since Peter Stöger replaced Peter Bosz as Borussia Dortmund coach in December. The Japan midfielder has played every minute in the Bundesliga, had a hand in five of his side’s 10 goals, and even added an assist against Bayern Munich for good measure. bundesliga.com takes a closer look at the Stöger formula that seemed to elude even the great Sir Alex Ferguson…

Kagawa has been involved in a goal every 108 minutes in his six Bundesliga outings under former Cologne boss Stöger, numbers he hasn’t posted since his sizzling first spell with Die Schwarzgelben between 2010 and 2012 as part of Jürgen Klopp’s all-conquering side.

An ill-fated spell at Manchester United between 2012 and 2014 looked like it might have derailed Kagawa’s career for good, with Thomas Tuchel and Bosz failing to get the best out of the playmaker upon his return to Signal Iduna Park. But now, at 28, it seems that some of his best years may still lie ahead of him after all.

Kagawa didn’t so much hit the ground running as break the land speed record when he first joined Dortmund from Cerezo Osako in the summer of 2010, for the modest sum of €350,000. That September, he inspired BVB to their first Revierderby win over bitter rivals Schalke in three years, scoring twice – as he predicted he would – in a 3-1 victory at the Veltins Arena.

Quiz: How well do you know Shinji Kagawa?

It says something about the esteem in which Kagawa was held by Klopp that the man who replaced him that day – and scored Dortmund’s third – was none other than Robert Lewandowski, who has since become the Bundesliga’s goal machine par excellence. Despite missing four months of the 2010/11 season with a foot injury, Kagawa still made more league starts than the Poland striker, and scored the same number of goals (8) in around half the appearances.

Overall, the Japanese star was involved in 35 goals in 49 games in that first two-year spell under Klopp, scoring 21 and setting up a further 14. Operating as a pure attacking midfielder – and often as a No. 10 – under the future Liverpool coach, Kagawa made the centre of the pitch his playground, pulling all the right strings and covering over 12 kilometres per game.

The goals he got were important too. Ten of his 21 strikes gave Dortmund the lead, while the team won 15 of the 18 games in which he found the back of the net. More importantly, Klopp’s merry band lifted back-to-back league titles in 2011 and 2012 – their fourth and fifth in the Bundesliga era.  

The wheels started to come off when Kagawa became the first Japanese player to sign for Manchester United in the summer of 2012. The transfer fee was €16 million – around 45 times what Dortmund had paid to bring him in two years previously – but a twisted knee after only six Premier League outings forced him to spend over two months on the sidelines.

Watch: Learn more about Kagawa thanks to his quick-fire quiz

In total, Kagawa netted six goals in 20 games in 2012/13, Ferguson’s final season in charge. While he came away with a Premier League winners’ medal, there was still a sense he had failed to live up to his potential. It didn’t help that he was often required to play out wide to accommodate Wayne Rooney at No.10, given that he had thrived in a more central role back in the Bundesliga.

If that first campaign was disappointing, 2013/14 was even worse, as Kagawa failed to score a single goal in 30 appearances in all competitions. Used sparingly by the more defensive-minded David Moyes – who could only steer United to seventh place in the Premier League – Kagawa decided it was time to move forward by taking a step backwards. He returned to Dortmund in August 2014.

The 2014/15 season could hardly have got off to a better start, as Kagawa scored in his first game back – a 3-1 win over Freiburg. However, Dortmund went on to endure a harrowing campaign, flirting with relegation before finally recovering to finish seventh, a whopping 33 points behind champions Bayern.

The Japanese star finished the league season with honourable statistics – five goals and six assists – but BVB were in need of a breath of fresh air, and got it when Thomas Tuchel replaced Klopp as head coach over the summer.

Kagawa has enjoyed playing against Schalke – scoring four goals against them. © gettyimages

Kagawa had an opportunity to showcase his versatility under Tuchel, as he was deployed across the midfield – and even occasionally as a centre-forward. He still enjoyed a successful 2015/16 – scoring nine goals and providing seven assists in the league, and marking his 100th Bundesliga appearance with a goal against Werder Bremen in a 3-2 win. He also got the opener in both Revierderby games that season, as Dortmund beat Schalke on home soil and drew at the Veltins Arena

Tuchel clearly recognised Kagawa’s talent – for though he played him a shade less centrally than Klopp, the Japan midfielder remained one of the first names on his teamsheet. Unfortunately, a series of minor niggles restricted Kagawa’s involvement in 2016/17, when he made only 13 league starts and scored just a solitary goal in the Bundesliga. However, he did play the full 90 minutes as Dortmund defeated Eintracht Frankfurt to lift the DFB Cup, and in the summer Die Schwarzgelben extended his contract through to 2020

In spite of being one of the most experienced players in the BVB dressing room, Kagawa found his playing time limited under Peter Bosz. He made just five Bundesliga starts out of a possible 15 during the Dutchman’s short-lived reign, and only played 90 minutes on a solitary occasion, in the 2-1 loss to Bremen on Matchday 15. Even in the games when he scored – against Hamburg and Augsburg – the 28-year-old was substituted in the second half.

The contrast with Stöger could not be starker. Since the former Cologne boss arrived in December, Kagawa has found himself restored to the limelight, playing the full 90 minutes in six Bundesliga games and scoring three goals, against Mainz, Hertha Berlin and Freiburg. He also had a hand in both goals in BVB’s 2-1 win over Hoffenheim – winning a penalty that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang converted, and sliding a glorious ball through for Christian Pulisic to net a last-minute winner.   

Kagawa will hope to play in his second World Cup with Japan this summer.
Kagawa will hope to play in his second World Cup with Japan this summer. © gettyimages / Atsushi Tomura

Stöger’s decision to restore Kagawa to his favoured position – the middle of the park – has paid rich dividends, even if the No.23 is playing a touch deeper than he did in his best years under Klopp. Time has done nothing, however, to blunt the Kobe native’s energy and movement. It is perhaps no coincidence that his improved performances have coincided with him covering more ground – he is back up to an average of over 12 kilometres a game – than he has since the 2011/12 campaign.

Kagawa has only played 1,088 minutes in the Bundesliga this season – the equivalent of around 12 matches – and yet he has already had a hand in nine goals, as well as setting up Andrey Yarmolenko in Dortmund’s 2-1 loss to Bayern in the DFB Cup last 16.

If he can keep up his current run of form – and as long as his coach keeps giving him the keys to the BVB midfield – the Black-and-Yellows have every chance of winning the battle to finish as best of the rest behind runaway leaders Bayern. After rocking around the Klopp, Dortmund’s fan favourite is ready to kick up a storm under Stöger.

Andy Smith

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