With Manchester United knocked out of the FA Cup yesterday, a season that held extraordinary potential only four weeks ago now seems like being one of mild disappointment.
Naturally, Premier League glory is all but assured, but the Red Devils have looked champions elect since the new year—nothing's changed on that account.
So, with the exception of a few rivalry games remaining, a record points total to chase and the always moving lifting of the EPL trophy, now is as good as any time to look ahead to next term.
As Sir Alex Ferguson remains as desperate as ever to claim European glory at least once more in his glittering career, the club will inevitably make considerable moves in the summer transfer market.
But this article isn't about sales and acquisitions, rather looking at the squad as it is now.
Who in this current Manchester United side could be the breakout player next season? Who could be set for a career-defining campaign in 2013/14 in the same way Rafael and David de Gea flourished this term?
When conceiving this article, three names immediately came to mind—Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa.
The former is yet to reach great heights for United, but, in Sir Alex's mind at least, could potentially be the best midfielder in England.
Welbeck has progressed nicely this season with plenty of game time, displaying an increasingly sure touch and doggedness in the attacking third, even if his end product leaves much to be desired.
But the clear choice has to be Kagawa, the man who moved to Manchester only last summer from Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund.
A Difficult First Season?
The Japanese playmaker's season has been stop-start to date. He has shown glimpses of the genius we've quickly come to expect, but has also suffered extended periods of indifferent form.
With Wayne Rooney's transition into the position, he hasn't been given an extended run of games in the trequartista role he favours most.
He has struggled to adapt to the more physical teams in Britain's top league, while also having a couple of niggling injuries bog him down at key times.
Nevertheless, his hat-trick against Norwich City a few weeks ago proved ample evidence of his immense natural ability.
His link-up play with Wayne Rooney in that game was exemplary, and gave fans of the Red Devils hope that his best is yet to come.
Sir Alex's reaction to such a performance was to say "he's going to be a good player, next season he'll be far, far better too," in his post-match interview.
A Unique Threat
In his better games, Kagawa's ability to draw opposing players out of position with his unpredictable runs and sharp movement has been well-documented.
His presence helps to quicken United's passing, operating between the opposition's midfield and defensive lines to cause havoc to their shape.
He has completed a resounding 90.5 percent of his passes in the Premier League this term, only less than the sporadically used Paul Scholes (via WhoScored.com).
One possible issue is that he hasn't had the type of support from the team's wingers as he would have had in previous seasons.
His distribution to the wings is one of the strongest aspects of his game. It's just a shame that Nani, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young have all had borderline-terrible seasons and haven't been able to create anything meaningful with the ball out wide.
His former teammate, German goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller, spoke about Kagawa this week (via The Mirror):
He's proven he has a lot of potential and only a few weeks ago he scored three goals, so he is getting better all the time.
He's still young, so there's a lot more to be expected of him and he will develop.
Shinji's difficult season is probably related to the injury he had, but now he's fit and back to his best form he can show what he can do.
Weidenfeller saw Kagawa play at his best in Dortmund alongside the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Mario Gotze, and knows full well the type of attacking threat he can pose.
Position, Position, Position
Of course, Shinji Kagawa having a breakthrough season in 2013/14 depends heavily on his being given a decent run of games in a central, attacking position.
He has proven capable of operating in a wider position on the left flanks, both for United and Japan, but this is not his nor the Red Devils' future.
In January, I wrote "United must play to his strengths and allow him to operate in an advanced position, even if that means displacing Rooney from his current habitat," and haven't changed my line of thinking since.
A formation change wouldn't be the worst idea in the world, but discussion over how to fit the Red Devils' countless stars into one efficient lineup is one that could take up 1,000 words by itself—I'll leave that for another article.
In regards to his physical shape, the suggestion that he should simply bulk up isn't necessarily wrong, but surely the answer is far less tangible.
Kagawa relies on his nimble frame to dance around defenders and pick out the impossible pockets of space in the final third—he is not, and will never be, a box-to-box type player.
I keep coming back to that quote from Sir Alex—"next season he'll be far, far better." If there's one man who is in the best position to make prophecies about next season, it's the Scotsman.
Whether he gives Kagawa the time of day to play his natural game, or if he has some other devilish plan up his sleeves for the Japan international, his words yield hope.
Shinji Kagawa could be key to taking a good season and making it great next year.
What do you think the future has in store for Kagawa? Could he be United's breakthrough player next term?
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