Should Shinji Kagawa leave Borussia Dortmund and return to the J.League?
There are rumours in the Japanese media that Shinji Kagawa could leave Borussia Dortmund in January to return home and sign for J.League club Yokohama F. Marinos.
ESPN FC asks whether he should stay or go.
Time to go
The main reason the playmaker should take his talents home is he is no longer an automatic pick for his current club. Since returning from a mixed spell with Manchester United in the summer of 2014, Kagawa has struggled to recapture the form that made him a star in his first German stint from 2010 to 2012. Back then, he played major roles in Dortmund's successive Bundesliga titles, but his performances last season were ultimately underwhelming, despite a strong finish.
At the moment, he is a squad player, albeit a valued one. Take this season: There have been nine games and three starts. At 27, Kagawa should be at or approaching his peak, but he seems to have fallen behind Gonzalo Castro, Mario Gotze and Raphael Guerreiro in the pecking order. He is still as technically sound and hard-working as before, but sightings of the old magic are less common, and therefore, a return home could be just the ticket.
This is not a case of a player heading back east with his tail between his legs. Kagawa has lifted both Bundesliga and English Premier League titles. If he returns, he returns as a success, and the J.League is a fine destination. The competition might have plateaued somewhat in recent years, but a new $2 billion rights deal means there is going to be a lot more money flowing around the Land of the Rising Sun over the next decade.
Yokohama, of whom the City Football Group own 20 percent, are also one of the bigger teams in Japan, though they had their best spell early in the previous decade, with two titles and two runners-up spots from 2000 to 2005. Shunsuke Nakamura returned to the club after his sojourn in Italy, Scotland and Spain, and it has been a successful comeback. Now 38, the old maestro's days are numbered.
Kagawa would be a suitable successor, and the move might give his international career a boost. It has been some time since the former Cerezo Osaka man has been at his best for the Samurai Blue. Back in the J.League, without that draining journey in a straight east-to-west line across eight time zones, it could be that Kagawa's form for his country would improve.
Instead of Japan, he could go elsewhere in Europe but is unlikely to go to a club of Dortmund's stature. There is nothing more for Shinji Kagawa to prove in Europe. He would be a major addition to the J.League, and it could be just the change his career needs.
Better to stay
This campaign was always going to be a little uncertain, given that Borussia Dortmund brought in no fewer than eight new players over the summer. There is serious strength in depth at the club, and Kagawa is competing with a host of talented midfielders. A certain amount of rotation is inevitable, and not being an automatic starter at the moment is no disgrace. It is still early days this season.
The problem of consistency is real, but it can be partly explained by the stop and start nature of the campaign. It is tough for an instinctive and intelligent player such as Kagawa to perform at his best when he is handed bit parts here and there. It's the old catch-22: He needs a sustained run to find his form but it is hard to find form without a sustained run. If Kagawa has not been as impressive for Dortmund in 2014-16 as he was in 2010-12, the same could be said of the club in general.
January will be crucial. Given the size of the squad, there are likely to be departures. If Kagawa stays put, the situation going into February could be looking a little more favourable, and he might expect to get more time on the pitch in which to find some of the old magic. After all, he is the kind of counter-pressing, hard-working, talented and intelligent player coach Thomas Tuchel likes.
Heading back to Japan, and perhaps succeeding Nakamura at Yokohama, would be a noble role, but the J.League can wait. There is no reason Kagawa can't play at the top level in Europe for another few years before heading home with still plenty to offer.
In addition, a move home might be better for his international career, but despite his lack of form with Japan, Kagawa is still rated by coach Vahid Halilhodzic. The Bosnian likes his players to be active in the big European leagues, and while the star is not an automatic starter, he is still active.
Even if his Japan place is in jeopardy -- he was dropped to the bench for the win over Iraq on Oct. 6, then returned to face Australia a few days later -- it could be that a break from the international game and the tough trips and travels are what Kagawa needs to focus on his club career and get back to his European best.
John Duerden covers Asian football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.