Shinji Kagawa is a vastly different player for club and country, and perhaps it’s best for all concerned if he is given a bit of a break from national team duty… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2016/09/13/post174348/)
It is quite clear – and has been for a while – that all is not well for Shinji Kagawa when he plays for Japan.
In the recent World Cup qualifiers the Borussia Dortmund playmaker was again a peripheral figure for the Samurai Blue, floating around the fringes of the games and all-too often favouring sideways or backwards passes instead of attempting anything more proactive, and snatching at the half-chances that came his way rather than dispatching them in the clinical fashion we have so often seen for his club.
As a result of these latest less-than-impressive showings Kagawa again came in for criticism, with many wondering why the 27-year-old is still a sure-fire pick for the side despite not having delivered consistently for a very long time, if ever, in national team colours.
While questions should certainly be asked of Vahid Halilhodzic and his refusal to drop a player who has been little more than a passenger for the past couple of years, it isn’t really fair to suggest that Kagawa is lacking in effort – if anything he is trying too hard.
At his club Kagawa is surrounded by some of the best talents in the game, players who share the burden of deciding games, leaving him to play freely as one of several cogs in Dortmund’s attacking machine. For Japan he is not afforded that same luxury, and he clearly struggles with the expectation to be the main man when it comes to unlocking opposition defences – defences that are focusing the majority of their energy and manpower on keeping him quiet.
This is a common theme in international football, and there are countless instances of star players of less successful nations struggling to carry the burden of responsibility when it comes to playing for their country. Just look at Wayne Rooney, for instance.
The Manchester United and England captain is the Three Lions’ all-time top scorer and most capped outfielder, and for many – including, thankfully for him, England’s past five managers – still the first name on the teamsheet. For just as many people, however, Rooney is longer an effective player for the side and shouldn’t be guaranteed a place in the XI.
Current boss Sam Allardyce has dismissed those suggestions, and despite the fact that Rooney has not delivered consistent results or performances for quite some time offered a rather strange comment after England’s 1-0 win over Slovakia last week.
“This is the most decorated outfield player in England,” he said. “He’s won everything at Manchester United, at Champions League and domestic level. I think he holds a lot more experience at international football than I do as an international manager. So, when he is using his experience and playing as a team member, it’s not for me to say where he’s going to play.”
The suggestion that Allardyce – the manager of the team, no less – has no say over where his players play was a bizarre remark, and implied that some members of the squad are un-droppable.
Whereas Big Sam is hesitant to offer Rooney any instructions Halilhodzic was certainly not shy about dishing them out to Kagawa in the recent Thailand game, frequently grabbing his No.10 and giving him a piece of his mind.
With Kagawa it doesn’t seem like that is the answer though. Instead of giving him more instructions, more advice, more things to think about, perhaps he should be given less: either by being given a totally free role, or perhaps by being left out of the squad altogether.
Andres Iniesta recently gave a fascinating interview to the Guardian’s Sid Lowe, in which he talked about his style of play and the way in which Barcelona and Spain managed to achieve so much success. One comment in particular stood out with Kagawa’s current troubles in mind.
“Most things come from inside, they’re intuitive; that’s the way I am,” Iniesta said. “There’s tactics, strategy but I understand football as something unpredictable, because you have to decide in a thousandth of a second. If the ball is coming and there’s someone behind you, I’m not thinking: ‘I’m going left or should it be right?’ I just go and it comes off … well, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Unfortunately for Kagawa those ‘sometimes it doesn’t’ instances are occurring far more often than the times when things go well at the moment, almost certainly because he is not playing instinctively, as Iniesta does, but instead to pre-prepared routes in his head.
Persevering with him when he is not in form just opens him up to more criticism, which in turn adds more pressure and then causes him to retreat further into his shell.
“There are moments when your mind is very vulnerable,” Iniesta said elsewhere in his interview when discussing a difficult period in his life that impacted on his form. “You feel a lot of doubts. Every person is different, every case. What I’m trying to explain is that you can go from being in good shape to being in a bad way very quickly.
“People see footballers as different beings, as if we’re untouchable, as if nothing ever happens to us, but we’re people. Of course we’re privileged but in the tangibles we’re the same.”
That shouldn’t be forgotten when it comes to Kagawa, who certainly doesn’t look especially happy when playing for Japan. Perhaps it would be better for him and the national team as a whole if he was allowed a little time out of the limelight to get his head together and start enjoying his football again.