“A signing with the future firmly in mind”: Finding Maika Hamano’s best position at Chelsea next season – scout report
Chelsea Women may still be celebrating their fourth successive WSL title, having lifted the trophy on Saturday afternoon to end what has been a breath-taking campaign, but planning is already underway for next season as manager Emma Hayes looks to improve her squad and to prevent their rivals from closing the gap.
Eintracht Frankfurt Frauen’s Germany midfielder Sjoeke Nüsken has already been confirmed as a new arrival, whilst there are strong rumours linking Lyon Féminin’s USA playmaker Catarina Macario and PSG Féminine’s Canada full-back Ashley Lawrence with moves to Kingsmeadow too.
However, as well as those star names, another player who will be hoping to make an impact is 19-year-old Japan forward Maika Hamano. She joined in January from INAC Kobe Leonessa, following impressive displays at the 2022 U20 World Cup, where she ended as the second-highest top scorer with four goals, so is not technically a new signing, but will feel like one due to her being immediately loaned out to Swedish side Hammarby for the 2023 Damallsvenskan season upon her arrival.
What many fans will be wondering is where she could best fit into Chelsea’s system, and that is a difficult question to answer, with her having the necessary characteristics to operate in several different roles. However, this tactical analysis will look to assess the possibilities and suggest some solutions, first by analysing her performances for Hammarby and for Japan and then by comparing her to some of those Chelsea players who operate in similar roles.
Sending Maika Hamano to Hammarby was not a case of Chelsea picking a club at random, with the Swedish club being carefully selected due to their reputation for playing attractive attacking football that sees them create plenty of goalscoring opportunities. Chelsea, therefore, knew that Hamano would be in the perfect environment to hone her craft and demonstrate why she is seen by many as a star of the future.
The fact that she has already scored four times in 10 appearances indicates that she has accepted that challenge, with her testing the goalkeeper from different areas of the pitch and having plenty of shots on goal.
However, there is more to her game than simply being a poacher, with her also being a reliable creator and someone who can link different areas of the team together when they are progressing the ball up the field. This is something that Hammarby have used to their advantage as they have risen up the league table, with them deploying her more often than not as an attacking midfielder or a winger rather than as a centre forward.
This has led to situations like this coming about, when Hamano has not been the main target player and has instead got into the gaps between two of her side’s lines, ensuring that there is a route for the ball to travel along in order to keep chances alive. It has been common to see her offering these links both in tighter areas of the field, such as here against Rosengård, and in open areas when Hammarby have been in transition, with Hamano using her precise passing ability (she has a 72.7% passing accuracy so far for the team) to feed the ball through gaps and give her teammates opportunities to run behind opposing defensive lines.
However, whilst the passing has been impressive, her composure has been just as evident, especially when under pressure from opponents who engage her in 1-v-1 duels. In this case, Rosengård’s Mia Persson has looked to get tight to Hamano as soon as Finland centre-back Eva Nyström has sent the ball towards her, with the intention of winning back possession, and many in these situations would have succumbed to the pressure and made a mistake. Hamano doesn’t though and simply puts her body between Persson and the ball, preventing it from being dislodged and allowing it to travel out of danger and back towards Ellen Gibson.
It was a pass backward, which took some of the momentum away, but the fact that Hamano held off her opponent so calmly in this 1-v-1 battle was what really stood out, and it is not the first time that she has won duels such as this.
Utilising spaces and continually allowing the ball to progress up the field are key aspects of Hammarby’s game plan, but that only works if they have players who can move around and take up different roles in order to create the passing options that allow those in deeper positions to send it into advanced areas.
Hamano has been one of those who has made that possible this season, with her demonstrating on plenty of occasions her ability to identify gaps around the field and to move into them to receive passes. In this case, she has realised how former Chelsea left-back Jonna Anderson is being closed down by Växjö’s players as she tries to advance up the field and so moves from a central to a wide role to allow the ball to move forwards before Andersson becomes completely cut off.
Hammarby’s tactics are built on continual positional rotations, with them relying on those in and around the final third swapping roles and never becoming too predictable, and this is why runs like these are so easy for players like Hamano to make without thinking twice. Again, it shows how she has become much more than just a forward during her time at the Stockholm club, and why she will fit into plenty of different roles when she returns to Chelsea later this year.
It also demonstrated her intelligence to be able to spot where she can have an effect on her team’s play, and that continues when looking at her contributions out of possession too. Here, Piteå, who have been one of the Damallsvenskan’s early pace-setters in 2023, are looking to move the ball up the field and to launch an attack of their own, but Hamano has read their thought process and so has moved across to cut off as many of Ronja Aronsson’s angles as possible.
However, the key detail to point out here is not the fact that Hamano got across to close down the Piteå player, but the curved movement that she makes at the end, which is arguably the most significant part of this press. In short, her initial run served to squeeze Aronsson into a tight space between her and the sideline, but didn’t stop the ball from travelling up the field and therefore wasn’t going to have the desired effect.
Hamano realised this and so moved around Aronsson at the right time to stand in front of it, and the fact that the latter was unaware of her presence until after she had released the ball, allowing the Chelsea loanee to make one of her 26 total interceptions to date, showed how Hamano’s speed of thought has been key in Hammarby catching their opponents out and becoming one of the more difficult teams to play against in the Damallsvenskan this season.
However, whilst Maika Hamano’s time at Hammarby has indicated the many ways that she can affect her team’s play, the point still stands that she is not playing as a centre forward for them, which is something that Chelsea are likely to rely on her more for due to them lacking options in that area of the field. Therefore, to ensure that that aspect of her play is included in this scout report, it is important to examine what she can offer when at the top of the field as well as when she is further back.
To do that, the analysis will turn to her performances on the international stage, with her making four appearances for the Japan senior team so far and being deployed solely as a centre forward and often as a replacement for Tokyo Verdy Beleza striker Riko Ueki.
Unlike Hammarby, Japan don’t use positional rotation and instead rely on players being deployed in their favoured positions and staying in those areas, meaning that the ball does the work as they transfer it around the field. That does mean that Hamano is unable to drift around in the manner that she does for her club side, and so needs to adapt to different expectations, but the good thing in that regard is that head coach Futoshi Ikeda keeps his instructions for each role very simple. For the striker, their only task is to stay high up the field and to both occupy the opposing defensive line and to provide an outlet for the rest of the team to find whenever they have the ball.
With that in mind, Hamano is not able to show the same creative abilities as she does for her club side, and yet this actually benefits her as it allows her to demonstrate alternative aspects of her game that Chelsea will undoubtedly appreciate. In this case, for example, she sees that Mynavi Sendai midfielder Hinata Miyazawa is looking to dribble the ball up the field and that there is a risk of Denmark’s defensive line closing her down. To avoid that happening, she makes a forward run to draw their attention away from her teammate and to open up the space behind her for Miyazawa to attack into.
This is not something that Hamano would have done if she had been given the same freedom as she enjoys for Hammarby, and yet she still has an effect on her team’s play. Therefore, the key point to take from this is that she can be a vital player for her team regardless of whether she is restricted in her role or whether she is allowed to move around the field, which will be crucial for Chelsea due to their need to approach games in different ways tactically as the season goes on.
Another advantage of not dropping back is that Hamano doesn’t need to worry about what is happening behind her and can instead focus only on what is going on at the top of the field. This almost gives her more freedom at times, particularly when pressing out of possession, and this situation shows that as she closes down San Diego Wave’s USA centre-back Naomi Girma, forcing her to make an earlier pass than she might have originally envisioned making.
This is a similar situation to the one highlighted in the previous section of this scout report when she got tight to Piteå’s Aronsson but with one big difference. In that example, she needed to simultaneously limit the space that her opponent had to operate in and prevent the ball from travelling up the field, but her only focus here is on the latter, with her knowing that there will be teammates around her who can press the ball once it travels to either side of the pitch.
Again, that indicates how the expectations laid on her when with Japan are very different to those at Hammarby, providing yet further evidence of her ability to play in different styles and to adapt to different instructions, and that is something that will really help her when she does arrive in London.
As mentioned, the other reason that Japan want her to remain in a central attacking role is that it gives them a permanent outlet at the top of the field. For Hammarby, it would not be a problem if she drifted off to one side because their rotation would mean that there would always be someone else who could move forwards to fill the position.
However, with Japan playing more rigidly, that would not be the case. Therefore, she doesn’t often move towards the ball when playing for her country and instead waits for it to come to her, and that allows the rest of her team to play to their strengths, with those in attacking midfield roles, for example, able to focus on the demands on that role without needing to worry about filling in for the striker at any point.
The fact that Hamano holds her position is of great benefit for the rest of the team, with it allowing key distributors like Liverpool Women’s January signing Fuka Nagano, who makes the pass here, and Manchester City Women’s Yui Hasegawa to send balls up the field and know that they will not be wasted, with the player controlling them being a specialist in that area of the field who can make the most of the opportunities that they are given.
Again, playing this way comes down to Japan’s desire to keep things simple, and, even though it doesn’t allow Hamano to play with the same freedom as she does when with Hammarby, what it does indicate is that she is happy to sacrifice that when it becomes about playing the team game and fitting into a particular style.
Possible Chelsea Women positions
What has become clear during this analysis is that Maika Hamano is a player with clarity and decisiveness in her play and who is versatile and capable of operating in different roles around the final third, and that she is “a signing with the future firmly in mind”. However, finding a place for her in the Chelsea team is not easy, with there being several positions that she could be deployed in, and it really comes down to how Hayes wants to use her and which of her aforementioned qualities she wants to take the most advantage of.
The most obvious place for the Japan forward, given that it is where Chelsea need additional options, is at centre forward, with an alternative to Sam Kerr needed in order to add competition and cover for the Australia striker.
When comparing the two players’ heatmaps (Kerr’s from the 2022/23 WSL season, Hamano’s from the U20 World Cup where she played in the same role), it is immediately clear that they have very different profiles on the field, with Kerr tending to stay predominantly in the central channel whilst Hamano moved between the channels in much the same way as she has done of late for Hammarby.
Therefore, if Hayes does see Hamano as a long-term replacement for the Australian, she would need to accept that Hamano might move around more than Kerr does, and so she would need to find a way of giving others the freedom to move forward to act as false nines in order to maintain that focal point at the top of the field.
That might sound like a difficult thing to implement, but they can take inspiration from Barcelona Femení with it, as the Spanish giants gained a lot of success from pushing Alexia Putellas and Aitana Bonmatí forward to act as target players to accommodate Jennifer Hermoso’s tendency to drop back into deeper roles. Therefore, if Chelsea did need to look at introducing a similar style, they could model it on Barcelona and take a lot of confidence from the fact that it worked for them.
However, Hamano’s tendency to move into wide channels might make it more sensible to deploy her as a winger, and, with Kerr unlikely to be dislodged in the striker’s pecking order any time soon, it might be a position where the Japanese player has a better chance of getting semi-regular game time. Hayes did alternate between using wing-backs and deploying traditional wingers and full-backs during the 2022/23 campaign, so making structural changes to fit players in is something that she is prepared to do.
From the two graphics above, which compare Hamano’s wing play at Hammarby to Lauren James’ from the WSL campaign just gone, it is clear that the former would not need to adapt too much to play in a wide role. Already, she shares many of the characteristics that the former Manchester United Women forward has demonstrated at Chelsea, with her capable of delivering balls into the middle and creating goalscoring opportunities and dribbling infield with the ball on her own to create overloads. The fact that she can do both with equal measure would allow her to alternate with Norway winger Guro Reiten, who will be expected to start on the opposite flank, in order to maintain the overall team balance.
Therefore, if this is where Chelsea feel that Hamano could be best used, then there would not need to be many tactical tweaks made, and that could prove to be an attractive option.
Whilst the reportedly imminent arrival of Macario is likely to fill the hole left by Denmark star Pernille Harder’s departure, the inverted attacker role could be something that Hamano is asked to play should Hayes stay with the wing-back formation that she has developed over the last couple of seasons.
That again could suit Hamano’s capabilities, with it allowing her to play in the half-spaces and to exercise the same creative freedom that she has shown at Hammarby, and her performances in Sweden may make Hayes think of her as a playmaker rather than a striker. She would also meet the demands of the role in that she is a goalscorer as well as a creator, with her time in Sweden indicating her potency, and, even though her goals come from further out than Harder’s, as the graphic indicates, that would not worry Hayes as she will already know that Hamano and Harder are different types of players and therefore some of the things that the Dane did during her time at the club might not be replicated.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has taken a detailed look at young Japan forward Maika Hamano, who signed for Chelsea in January but who is spending the Swedish season on loan at Hammarby as she continues to get used to the demands of higher-level European football.
What has become abundantly clear throughout the analysis is why Chelsea rate her so highly, with her possessing many of the raw qualities that they value in a young player, including versatility and composure but also an ability to adapt and a desire to learn. Those are things that cannot be taught and come from players having a good understanding of what they can already do and what they need to keep working on, and that is why she is likely to be the type of hard-working player that Emma Hayes really appreciates.
The purpose of this analysis though was to find potential positions in the Chelsea team for Hamano to play in, using what she has shown at Hammarby and for Japan to see where her qualities allow her to fit in. With those in mind, and bringing everything that the scout report has looked at together, she is perhaps best-suited to a wide forward role in a wing-back formation, due to that giving her the freedom to move around the pitch, link play in different areas of the pitch, drop back when needed to allow others like Erin Cuthbert to push forward and to both create and score goals.
However, whether Hayes agrees with that assessment or not remains to be seen, and the fact that she will be returning to the club after the 2023/24 campaign has kicked off could be to her detriment, as new partnerships and systems will have already been developed by then. Nevertheless, once she has formerly arrived at Kingsmeadow and settled in, there is every chance that she could shine on the field, and she has the makings of being a future fan favourite due to the variety of things that she will bring to their overall play.