Shinji Kagawa: Man Utd flop facing uncertain future after being released by PAOK

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Shinji Kagawa Manchester United GFXGetty/GOAL

At 32 years of age, Shinji Kagawa is without a club.

The former Borussia Dortmund star was released by PAOK in mid-December and remains a free agent.

He had spent less than a year with the Greek Super League side, after moving to Thessaloniki from Real Zaragoza in January 2021.

However, Kagawa parted company with PAOK having failed to make an appearance for the club since September.

For so long the poster boy of Japanese football, a star of two World Cups with 97 caps for his country, Kagawa appears to be slipping into early retirement, with few prospects of finding a top-tier club at a time when he should still be near the peak of his powers.

Kagawa had initially moved to Europe as a fresh-faced 21-year-old in 2010, joining Dortmund from Cerezo Osaka during a pivotal summer for BVB.

Indeed, he arrived in the same window as a promising young striker from Polish club Lech Poznan, one Robert Lewandowski.

Shinji Kagawa PAOK GFX
Getty/GOAL

As part of a youth-focused Dortmund rebuild under Jurgen Klopp, Kagawa took the step from J.League Division 1 to the Bundesliga in his stride, scoring eight goals in his first 18 league games from an attacking midfield position, including a double in a derby win over rivals Schalke.

Kagawa broke a bone in his foot at the Asian Cup in January 2011 and missed most of the rest of the season, but he had played an important role in Dortmund holding off Bayern Munich to win the 2010-11 Bundesliga title.

The following year went even better for Kagawa, as Dortmund won the league and DFB-Pokal cup double for what remains the only time in their history, while scoring 13 goals – including the opener in the 5-2 final thrashing of Bayern – and providing nine assists.

All this persuaded Man Utd, as directed by Sir Alex Ferguson, to pay an initial £12 million ($16m) to bring him to Old Trafford in the summer of 2012.

Hopes were high that Kagawa could follow in the footsteps of Park Ji-Sung by becoming an Old Trafford icon for the club's east-Asia fan base.

However, he found the step-up to the Premier League far more difficult than the South Korean, not helped by a knee injury suffered in October which kept him out for nearly three months.

There were moments where Kagawa sparkled, however, the stand-out being his hat-trick in a 4-0 Premier League win over Norwich in March 2013.

It was a match in which he showed the very best of his game: cool finishing, confidence and creativity on the ball, and an instinctive knowledge of what to do with it.

Ferguson remained faithful to Kagawa, telling reporters after the game that "we will see the best of him next season.

"He’s had a few setbacks since he came. He missed a period of football when he was injured; that put him back. But he is a great player and a really good finisher – and we saw that today."

Kagawa's second season at Old Trafford proved his last, though.

He scored in Ferguson's final match as United boss – the mad 5-5 draw with West Brom – but, like so many other players, failed to impress under the Scot's successor, David Moyes.

Kagawa failed to find the back of the net once in 30 outings in all competitions in 2013-14, resulting in him losing his place in the starting line-up to the emerging Adnan Januzaj.

The nadir of his dire campaign arrived when he missed a Premier League home defeat to Newcastle after being hospitalised due to over-eating.

"It was a bad sickness. He thinks he ate too much and had to get his stomach pumped, but I think he's okay," revealed Moyes.

Upon Louis van Gaal's arrival at Man Utd, Kagawa was deemed surplus to requirements and sold back to Dortmund in August 2014 for £7.2m ($9.8m).

Shinji Kagawa Manchester United GFX
Getty/GOAL

However, his second spell at Signal Iduna Park was nothing like his first.

There were some great moments – a goal on his second debut, a 3-1 win over Freiburg, and Bundesliga Goal of the Month award for a stunning chip against Augsburg in September 2017 – but these were just flashes of class amid near-constant frustration.

After a loan at Besiktas and a year with Zaragoza where they missed out on promotion to La Liga, he endured another false start with PAOK, his efforts over 11 months in Greece resulting in only 12 appearances, three starts and a two-line club statement.

"PAOK FC and Kagawa decided, by mutual consent, to end their cooperation. We wish the footballer good luck in the continuation of his career," the club announced.

Kagawa remains one of the most recognisable figures in Japanese football and is active in promoting the game for under-privileged people across Asia through his work with Common Goal alongside former Man Utd team-mate Juan Mata.

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It may be that Kagawa returns to Japan after his latest failed move in Europe, although he is still young enough that a final big move could be on the cards.

There will be plenty of Man Utd and Dortmund fans who still remember the brightest moments and wish him well – while also feeling that, with some more luck and consistency, there could have been so many more.