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What does Yui Hasegawa bring as Manchester City's No. 6?
Replacing Keira Walsh is no easy task but has Taylor masterminded a positional change?
Another summer turnover went by at Manchester City and it meant that Gareth Taylor needed to reassemble the squad to continue his current tactical system with similar profiles and add-ons. And City, for all their faults of last season, did eventually make some strides in their recruitment. Still, in a summer of upheaval with the likes of Keira Walsh and Lucy Bronze leaving along with the retirement of Ellen White, City needed to ensure they adequately replaced each of them.
While Bronze’s departure was a relatively known problem to the management, the surprise retirement of White followed by the world-record sale of Walsh might have caught them unguarded. Regardless of their need to bring in reinforcements, the departures of the aforementioned players needed to be addressed, but how do you replace three of the best players in their respective positions, in such a short space of time? Well, in Khadija Shaw they had a ready-made replacement for White lined up, but it was in Bronze and Walsh where they had to be perfect. Kerstin Caspirij came in to play as the new right-back, but the most unexpected addition was Yui Hasegawa from West Ham to complete their midfield.
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The Japanese midfielder comes with a solid reputation behind her after an impressive first season with West Ham. However, she doesn’t come in as a like-for-like replacement for Walsh – if anything, you’d be forgiven for wondering how Taylor would set up the side with no real defensive midfield options available to him. The answer was converting Hasegawa into a No. 6 to replicate Walsh.
Walsh wasn’t a traditional No. 6, rather she was more of a ‘regista’ who was the crux and base nf which City built their attack through. Hasegawa’s profile is slightly different (though there are some similarities) but can she deliver the same level of performance as her predecessor?
During her Milan tenure, she was ranked as one of the most creative players when it came to progressive passes in Europe. To maximise her effect and ensure West Ham had enough creativity to create chances, they deployed Hasegawa as an attacking No. 8 with her influence shown in her passing metrics: she ranked 14th for key passes per 90 minutes, and eighth for through passes per 90 minutes.
So why is Gareth Taylor looking to convert a player that has been relatively successful playing in an advanced position so far?
The answer lies somewhere in between (literally). Taylor’s deadline-day swoop might have seemed frantic at a glance, but there seems to be some method to the madness. Manchester City have signed a player that can bring a touch of flair, directness, and versatility to their midfield. Clearly, City already have players of a similar vein but Hasegawa brings a combination of the qualities present in the current squad. The agile movement, passing, and vision of Keira Walsh, Vicky Losada, and Filipa Angeldahl can all be seen in Hasegawa.
Hasegawa has benefited from a consistent run of games and a system that was specifically catered for her previously at West Ham. As a natural attacking central midfielder, Hasegawa is a playmaking, attacking No. 8 or No. 10 who acts as the hub of her team’s creativity. She’s an excellent passer and distributor with a keen eye for a pass. Through balls and killer passes are what make her such a creative force and potent weapon for her team. Players of this ilk are often given a free role to dictate play but in mid-table teams, the term ‘free role’ isn’t often applicable given the strict need to keep their shape against the top sides. The ground she covers in this heat map from her season at West Ham shows that she had somewhat of an influence across the pitch throughout the season, but was still heavily concentrated on the left side of the pitch.
However, in Hasegawa, West Ham had a player that was diligent with her positioning but equally capable of making an impact in a counter-attacking side. Her style of play is very much catered to a possession-heavy style, but a season at AC Milan and then West Ham has given her the experience of both styles.
The system at City is fundamentally the same, retaining their 4-3-3 with the front three being pretty static in their positioning and the middle three essentially deployed to support the forward line. Given City’s priority to ensure possession goes to the wings, they rely on the centre-backs and central midfielders to provide Chloe Kelly and Lauren Hemp with the ball. This is where the vision of central and defensive midfielders becomes imperative along with their movement. The best ones can combine the two and become a dynamic passing source. Caroline Weir, Georgia Stanway, and Keira Walsh were the perfect combination of pace, power, creativity, and movement. Each was capable of executing all the aspects required of a central midfield trio and whilst they serviced the wide players, they were able to contribute themselves as well.
The new midfield trio of Deyna Castellanos, Laura Coombs, and Hasegawa bring a different dynamic to the structure. Deyna is more of an attack-minded No. 10 with qualities similar to a shadow striker, while Coombs and Hasegawa are blessed with ball control and progression skills. One of the changes Taylor has made is the move into a double-pivot in the build-up when City are overloaded centrally by dropping Coombs or Deyna next to Hasegawa to ensure there is space and personnel to progress. This makes the player's role very much centred around excellent ball control, composure, and quick progression.
The ability to move out of these situations could translate to Taylor’s need to replicate Walsh’s composure and compatibility in the position. She was excellent in transition and evading high pressers, so placing a central midfielder next to her gives her time to adjust to the position. Here, Deyna drops into support Hasegawa who again scans the pitch and sees help on the way, which allows her to play the first-time pass around the corner without concern of losing it. It attracts the Everton #5 towards her and Laia Alexandari can play a pass to Deyna quicker who’s then able to progress. The shorter passing distances mean there’s potentially quicker progression and space created.
Hasegawa isn’t the quickest off the mark or in full flight, so she has to make use of intelligent positioning and touches to propel her forward over shorter distances. It’s very important in her position to be able to release the ball swiftly but also intelligently; the wrong pass could expose her team to a counter-attack. Typically, Hasegawa can receive in tight spaces and has a good turn and first move given her low centre of gravity. This enables her to move a lot more quickly and drive out of situations, taking the ball forward.
An important point to note in this example is Hasegawa’s constant scanning of the space around her. The constant analysis of. Hasegawa quickly recognises that once she receives the ball, she’ll be closed down by two Everton players. The timing to drive the ball between the two players instantly eliminates them from the scenario and gives the Japanese international the space to drive and find a pass out wide to Julie Blakstad.
Short, agile movements with sharp turns are the crux of Hasegawa’s impressive ball progression. One of Walsh’s strengths was to pick up possession and quickly identify the next move, whether it be a pass or a drive forward. She was highly proficient in her passing but also possessed a wicked short drive, though she relied more on the former. While Hasegawa can do both, her initial progression and drive out of the space is very effective and she uses that to create space to find the killer pass.
Her ability to find a threaded pass isn’t isolated to her being in one area of the pitch – even against low blocks, Hasegawa can find an opening. What’s impressive is her scanning and decision-making ability where she’s constantly looking to find a teammate in an attacking position. Take this example against Tottenham Hotspur, where she combines her dribbling and vision to see a pass, but her teammate doesn’t react in time. Despite this, the idea was sound and in the process, she attracted several players to her position.
It’s no doubt that Hasegawa’s playmaking skills are superior, and stepping up to the plate in an attempt to fill Walsh’s void in this regard is certainly likely, but it also comes down to the defensive side of the game. Passivity in this position works – provided it’s coupled with anticipation and exquisite positioning. While Hasegawa has the intellect to find these right positions in an attacking sense, there is a slight issue in her defensive positioning and she lacks the strength or physicality to compete with several WSL attackers. You could argue that Walsh wasn’t the strongest either, but she was still able to delay attacks and step into positions to intercept. It’s then turning these interceptions into transitional attacks which becomes the priority for the defensive midfielder when possession is in transition.
Her defensive positioning is what we’ll focus on now. For the most part, she positions herself in the right areas but it’s the lack of pace that puts her on the back foot. Take the below as an example.
Here against Reading, Hasegawa remains two steps behind but manages to catch up thanks to Kerstin Casparij delaying the ball carrier. Hasegawa wins the ball back, but loses out on the second duel because of her physicality and Reading then resume their attack.
Even here when Hasegawa is in a great defensive position, she doesn’t fully commit to the tackle and loses out in the 50-50 duel, giving the Liverpool ball-carrier space to drive forward. What’s most noticeable is the overload both teams tried to create in their attacks, and trying to gain an advantage becomes an integral part of the defensive midfielder’s job to create a delay. This is where Hasegawa does experience some joy through her intense running, but it’s just her physicality that’s missing.
This is probably the part of her that needs the most improvement and work. This isn’t to say she can’t develop her game and become a better defensive player, but a few games into her City career, it’s safe to say there is work to be done. What Hasegawa brings with the ball, she lacks off it, but it’s mostly offset by the positional change of Coombs. Against teams of higher quality, she might be found out positionally with teams using their No. 10s to exploit her positioning and take over the space just in behind. Time will tell how this transformation will unfold, but the Hasegawa No. 6 experiment is certainly an interesting one, to say the least.
Photo by Tom Flathers/Manchester City FC via Getty Images
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