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Kagawa’s Conundrum

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The 29 year old fan favorite has been cast to the side this season, so what is his future at BVB?

Club Brugge v Borussia Dortmund - UEFA Champions League Group A Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

With the adaptation of the 4-2-3-1 in the Frankfurt game, several players have been left out of Lucien Favre’s plans - most notably, Shinji Kagawa. The 29-year-old Japanese fan favorite has yet to play over 100 minutes in the Bundesliga and over 30 minutes in the Champions League this season, which coincides with speculation mounting about his future at the club. The veteran attacking midfielder has impressed during international breaks, often being the most impressive player on the pitch in routs against lower league opponents, playing alongside other Dortmund first team players. His impressive performances give way to the question of why he is not playing for Dortmund in competitive matches, even on a rotational basis.

The answer to why Kagawa is not playing is pretty simple: Marco Reus. The heart and soul of the team has played the most minutes of any Dortmund player in the Bundesliga this year, 53 minutes more than goalkeeper Roman Bürki, and 60 minutes more than Axel Witsel. The German international has slotted into the central attacking position in Favre’s 4-2-3-1 perfectly, scoring 8 goals and assisting 4 during the first 12 weeks of the season.

What Favre has been doing with his side has been sampled from several tactical ideas over the last decade; the use of a 4-2-3-1. the idea of a CAM as a second striker, a defensive block, midfield pressing, the use of a false 9. In some ways, he has even used himself as tactical inspiration, playing Götze and Reus as the two forwards against Atletico and in the several weeks after that game seemed similar as the combination of Raffael and Max Kruse as the two forwards during his days at Borussia Mönchengladbach.

And despite the moving pieces of reshuffling the back line, or figuring out who Witsel’s partner should be, which wingers bring the most to the table, or whether the sensational Paco Alcacer should start or come off of the bench, Marco Reus (along with Witsel) has been the mainstay in this side, leaving little to no room for Shinji Kagawa to play in his place.

Club Atletico de Madrid v Borussia Dortmund - UEFA Champions League Group A Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Mostly, it comes down to fit in the system. Reus plays centrally because of his movement, often working with whoever is up top to pull the back line out of shape. Against Mainz, on the weekend, Reus brought Dortmund into the lead with a fantastic run into space that left Paco wide open for the cutback (1-0). Against Bayern, Reus worked off of Paco’s intelligent run that pulled Süle and Boateng out of position. He, in turn, found a pocket of space and blasted a chance into a bottom corner for the second equalizer of the night (2-2). What makes Reus so special is that dual ability to do both - make the runs and work off of the runs that create space for others. It is possible for him to be marked out of the game, but it takes a group of defenders to zonally mark his marauding runs, shown in the first leg of the Atletico game.

Reus’s effectiveness: finds space (blue), marked out of the game (red), runs channels (arrows)

Kagawa, most often, works the most effectively in a more reserved role in the 10 position. Logically, it is also why Philipp would be preferred over Pulisic or Kagawa as someone who could replace Reus when rotation is needed. Kagawa fits the idea of a traditional central attacking midfielder, using the wingers and the forward to make runs forward, and spray creative passes in the channels, finding pockets of space between the midfield and backlines. And while he is immensely good at that, the overall side is too static when relying on four or five players consistently to break down an opposition low block.

Kagawa’s effectiveness: finds space (blue), marked out of the game (red)

In order to integrate Kagawa into the side, Favre would have to tweak the tactics, pushing wingers further up the pitch, therefore playing more defensively vulnerable than he would typically want to. Both of the wingers would probably be more of the creative or playmaking mold, like Pulisic or Sancho, rather than the occasional cameo of Wolf or another game to aide Jacob Bruun Larsen’s development.

It also comes down to versatility. Kagawa’s only potential position in Favre’s 4-2-3-1 is at the attacking midfielder position, and he doesn't fit the mold of the second striker role. He could potentially fit as a central midfielder in a 4-3-3, but Favre favors a more defensive destroyer next to Witsel’s ball progression skills, often playing the two as defensive midfielders instead of central midfielders.

It is not a bad thing to have options on the bench, to have the ability to change things up. But as youngsters, like Sergio Gomez, or younger, more versatile bench players, like Maximilian Philipp, are there to bring those options going forward, he might not have a future at the club. Especially when classic number 10s, who had excelled in the 4-2-3-1 when Klopp brought the formation to its height, have started to become outdated. Players like Özil and Kagawa have had their moment, while oftentimes, their role on the pitch is able to be countered more often than benefits the rest of the team. This is able to be achieved by sitting a defensive midfielder on the CAM and attempting to nullify the majority of the ball progression that goes through the middle of the pitch. And by playing a traditional CAM, the majority of ball progression does tend to go through the middle, so the transition play and link from the midfield into the final third is effectively disrupted. And while Özil has benefitted from Emery making tactically changes to build the team around his talent, and other traditional 10s, like Max Meyer, have adapted by dropping into deeper positions on the pitch.

Because of Favre’s insistence on a 4-2-3-1, that option is not available.

Naturally, little options remain other than him moving from the club. And while Stuttgart have been rumored to be interested in his services, he still has the ability to move to a quality club like Sevilla, Inter, or Roma and make a difference.

What are your thoughts? If he does move, where should he go?