“Quality” is one of the more nebulous attributes attached to top-level footballers. Manchester United’s 4-0 win over Norwich City at the weekend was widely credited to the difference in quality between the sides, and at two specific moments this abstract value was defined in the most vivid and measurable manner possible.
Shinji Kagawa left the field on Satuday with the match ball and man of the match award after scoring a hattrick in a game that will likely pass into Premier League folklore as the day the Japanese playmaker finally arrived in English football.
Ironically, Kagawa’s performance outside of the opponent’s six-yard box fell short of his usual standards of excellence when in possession. What his display lacked in polish and passing accuracy however it more than made up for in terms of impact.
Kagawa needed only three shots to score his trio of goals, which were also pleasantly varied: a quick reaction tap-in, a placed finish and a tight-angled dribble and chip. As well as being clinically efficient, the timing of his strikes was vital too.
His first came at the death of a frustrating and tepid first half in which Manchester United had struggled to convert their periods of dominance into goals. While the final result is suggestive of a rout, the match was far from one-sided with Norwich offering up a full and positive account of themselves away from home.
Chris Hughton’s side worked hard and sought to take advantage of a United side that appeared rather self-conscious and brittle at times – perhaps slightly pre-occupied with the prospect of the midweek Madrid encounter ahead. By scoring the opener before half time, Kagawa lifted United while dealing a blow to the Canaries who had begun to establish a psychological foothold on the fixture going into the break.
As has been evident over the past few seasons, United can struggle against supposedly weaker opposition once the midfield initiative has begun to slip out of their grasp. This is one of the dangers of fielding a midfield designed to retain rather than win the ball; once the momentum shifts it can be difficult to claw it back. Instead, Kagawa’s opener checked the potential for an early second-half ascendency from Norwich with the buffer of a 1-0 lead.
The second goal of his hattrick was also timely, coming just as Manchester United started to look unsettled once more. Battling back from their half-time setback, Norwich were seeing more of the ball and gaining confidence while United seemed tense. What could have been a dangerous shift in balance however became 2-0 and the visitor’s will to win finally appeared to be broken. The floodgates had been jimmied open with the three points secured, and Kagawa scored a third with a deft dribble and chip. Wayne Rooney soon followed up with perhaps the best goal of the game: a superb strike bursting with intent and technique.
It was ultimately Rooney, Michael Carrick and the second-half substitutes Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley who delivered victory, but Kagawa’s pivotal goals ensured the balance of the game was tipped heavily in United’s favour. After all, a well-timed strike can be far more than just a notch on the scoreboard, triggering chain reactions capable of diverting the course of games, ties, tournaments and even championships.
Until recently, Paul Scholes was one of United’s most potent match winners – seemingly always able to dig deep and snatch back the impetus during games where nothing seemed to come off and belief began to wilt amid nerves and misfortune. Judging by Kagawa’s record of scoring important goals in crucial fixtures at Dortmund, it would seem that a worthy successor to the Ginger Price may finally have been found in United’s Red Samurai.
The Japanese’s returning match-winning decisiveness may cause Sir Alex to ponder whether to select Kagawa against Mourinho’s Real Madrid. After all, chances will not come cheap against Ronaldo and co, and in games of such magnitude every missed opportunity will feel like a grave and costly errors. Clinical finishing will be key.