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Yui Hasegawa exclusive: The Andres Iniesta lover who has taken Man City to next level in WSL pursuit

Manchester City midfielder Yui Hasegawa on her childhood love of Andres Iniesta, her adaptation to a different role at the Academy Stadium and her hopes of lifting the WSL title in her first season with the club

Summer signing Yui Hasegawa has proved one of the WSL's best midfielders in her first season with Manchester City
Image: Summer signing Yui Hasegawa has proved one of the WSL's best midfielders in her first season with Manchester City

"When I was young, I loved watching Ronaldinho, it was just great to see the way he played. But after I began playing seriously, I really liked the style of Andres Iniesta."

When Manchester City let Lucy Bronze, Georgia Stanway, Caroline Weir and Keira Walsh all leave in one summer, heads turned across the WSL.

It had already been a difficult season for the club, having dropped from second to third and nine points off champions Chelsea, and the departures left them with the task of replacing a huge pool of talent in one transfer window.

Back-to-back defeats to open this campaign and a Champions League exit in qualifying only cemented concerns over where Gareth Taylor's side were headed next. It was a crossroads, but also an opportunity.

City signed seven new faces that summer. There was no guarantee any of them would hit the ground running, especially when only two had ever played football in England before.

Eight months later, the last of those arrivals - who missed out on the two opening defeats - has become the beating heart of City's midfield to play a key part in dispelling those concerns and propelling them back into the title race on a run of one defeat in 17.

Manchester City summer transfers

Out In
Karen Bardsley (retired) Deyna Castellanos
Georgia Stanway Leila Ouahabi
Jill Scott (retired) Laia Aleixandri
Caroline Weir Mary Fowler
Karima Benameur Taieb Sandy MacIver
Lucy Bronze Kerstin Casparij
Ellen White (retired) Yui Hasegawa
Keira Walsh

Japan international Yui Hasegawa arrived at the Academy Stadium from WSL rivals West Ham as an advanced midfielder whose passing and dribbling skills had shone for the Hammers. But tasked with filling the Walsh-shaped void in City's midfield, a deeper role has helped mature the style of Taylor's side in their superb run.

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The 26-year-old's changing position over the last 12 months has mirrored that of her own footballing idols. A midfielder since a child, the young Hasegawa would watch the dazzling feet of Ronaldinho in awe, beholden to the men's game without a professional Japanese women's league of her own to watch on television.

As time went on, the understated class of Ronaldinho's Barcelona team-mate Iniesta began to pique her interest over the Brazilian's mesmerising showmanship. Her performances in the north west this season show how deep that inspiration runs.

A generational talent, Iniesta rewrote the rulebook on the profile of an elite midfielder. Short at 5'7'' and never particularly quick, his genius with the ball, reading of the game and positional awareness flew in the face of the esteemed wisdom that dynamism and physical strength ruled over all.

The 5'2'' Hasegawa is similarly unlikely to win too many towering headers either but even before she first laced up her boots at City, she made known her intentions to dispel those same misconceptions.

"People see me as an attacking player, but I also want to be known for my defending and unpredictability," she said in her first interview the same day she signed. "I may be small, but I am strong, and I want to show that."

Hasegawa has shown it in spades. Only Katie Zelem has won the ball back in the middle third more regularly across the entire WSL this season, while only three players have completed more passes in last third of the pitch.

Overcoming physically larger opponents was probably never the issue it might have seemed. Hasegawa's earliest footballing memories were spent playing in boys' teams, before moving on to face older girls at the renowned Menina academy in Tokyo.

Even her early steps in the professional game came as a 16-year-old with Tokyo Verdy Beleza against older, more physically developed opponents.

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Watch free highlights from Man City's thumping 4-1 win over Reading

"There weren't any girls' teams when I first started playing so me and another girl played with the boys," she told Sky Sports. "I was already very good on the ball so even though I was small, it never caused any issues.

"At Menina there were only a few players selected each year, and when I joined at 13 I was straight into playing with bigger, older girls.

"I've never been worried about playing with older players, and when I first started playing for the senior team I thought the most important thing was to enjoy myself. I'm very used to it, and I played a a number six in Japan so it's a position I know very well."

Hasegawa's relationship with left-back Alex Greenwood, in an inverted full-back role championed by both men's and women's teams at City, has drawn praise for allowing Taylor's side to dictate games in a way they couldn't before.

That shared style across the club's teams was one of the key reasons that attracted Hasegawa to City in the first place, and has allowed her - and her new team - to flourish this season.

"I like the way the Man City men's team play and knew the women's team try to model that same style. I could see that watching them, and when I played against them for the first time it really made me realise that I wanted to come to this club," she said.

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Chelsea may prove City's biggest rival in the WSL title race, and Blues boss Emma Hayes says their Champions League exit will teach them lessons in the run-in

The weather certainly wasn't one of the main things which attracted Hasegawa to Manchester last summer - though she was expecting even more rain - but the possibility of securing a Champions League spot has lived up to expectations so far - with an outside chance of an even bigger prize still alluring in the final weeks of the season.

"Last year I wasn't even involved in a title race so being part of it this year is very good," she said. "At the moment I'd love to be in a Champions League position and winning the title with this team.

"To win the league now relies on other teams, so we're not too sure what will happen, but we need to keep winning all of our games and score as many goals as possible as a minimum."

Ultimately, that title may prove elusive with Man Utd leading the table and Chelsea still able to move top if they win their games in hand. But the question of whether City could replace their departing stars has been firmly answered.

Already, Hasegawa is well on her way to becoming one herself.

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