Real Madrid’s new signing, Takefusa Kubo, has been playing regularly for Japan in this year’s Copa America. Kubo, the teen prodigy known as the ‘Japanese Messi’ has recently created a buzz after sealing a €2m move to the Spanish giants on a six-year contract believed to be worth €1m a season.
Kubo started two of Japan’s group stage games against Chile and Ecuador, playing the full 90 minutes in both games. He was on the bench in the game against Uruguay where he only came on the pitch for the last 10 minutes. Though Japan got knocked out after their draw against Ecuador, we got a good look at our new signing and what we can expect from him next season.
Here I look at my notes from his performances across the group stages:
● Despite having the intelligence and possessing an undeniable skill, new Castilla coach Raul Gonzalez will still have a lot of work to do to get the Japanese prodigy ready for next season. For all his guile, Kubo got knocked over easily time and again. Chile had done their homework on him, and they would immediately get close to him and try to knock the ball off him -- doing it frequently with good success. On the occasions where he received the ball at his feet with his back to the goal or the defender, he was muscled off the ball. He struggled with Chile’s physicality and got a little taste of what awaits him in Europe. In the past, Kubo has been accused of being muscled off the ball too easily in the Japanese league, being knocked over and losing possession. Though he has said to have improved this season, it was evident during the group stages that he would need to bulk up a little to get to the level of physicality needed for Europe. Kubo lost the ball a record nine times (more than twice as many as any other player) in the game against Chile, and with his sole touch vs Uruguay, the #21 lost possession:
It was the same story against Ecuador where he lost the ball a further seven times. An underrated key point often not realized with small players like Messi or Hazard is their upper body strength which makes it very difficult for the defender to bully them off the ball. They can ride those challenges and get out of the tight situations. Though Kubo generally improved in the second half in both games, Madrid fans would need to be patient with him as he adjusts to life in Europe.
It wasn’t all that bad, as he was given much more space to turn by Ecuador, where he showed his ability to suck in defenders and draw fouls:
● Kubo showed a tendency to be hot-and-cold during the two games. Even though he played as a second striker, there were moments when you felt he’d let the play pass him by. That being said, he generally got better as the game progressed, quite notably in the second half, sucking in defenders, turning them inside out and releasing the ball into the path of an open teammate.
● While a lot of promising short left-footed players, such as Mohamed Salah, Martin Odegaard, are quickly dubbed as the ‘new Messi’; Kubo has shown in glimpses why he may be the closest thing to the diminutive Argentinian, at least stylistically. He had in total 14 dribbles against Chile and Ecuador whilst completing eight of them. His ability to drop deep and provide a passing option, play a quick one-two, receive the ball and run with a burst of acceleration and shoot often leaves the defenders backpedaling. To top it off, he showed he isn’t afraid to shoot.
In this passage of play below, he makes himself available to receive the pass, plays a quick one-two and leaves three Chile players for dead. Reports in Chile have confirmed Vidal was still sliding at the time of my writing:
● What impressed me the most was his offensive intelligence. Time and again Kubo would position himself into little pockets of space. While the Chile players hounded him in the first half and didn’t allow him to get going, after they eased up around the 60-minute mark, he started to get into his groove. Ecuador meanwhile didn’t exploit his lack of physicality. The result was the same -- whenever he got the ball, he would either look to take a man on, or better yet look for that line-breaking vertical pass. He’s shown in glimpses what a bane he would be for anyone looking to make the right runs in Castilla.
Notice in the clip below how he waits for Ueda, who is running off the shoulder of the left centre back to make the diagonal run through the two centre backs which would’ve opened him up to receive a through ball, something that Ueda fails to do. Kubo then holds onto the ball, drawing in two defenders and slides in a reverse pass into the path of onrushing Abe:
He played an incredible seven key passes against Ecuador, and they almost paid for it as he was easily Japan’s best player. If his teammates didn’t forget to pack their shooting boots when they flew to Japan, not only would he have a couple of assists to show for his efforts, but he would’ve gotten them into the quarterfinals too.
In this first sequence he notices the run his teammates is making so he lays in the ball in his path with a first time pass, while dragging a central defender with him:
In the second sequence he has the skill and the vision to thread a ball through the centre back and the left back, to set up a first time finish:
Time and again he slid in balls which carved open the Ecuadorian defense:
In the dying seconds of the extra time Japan had one last chance to grab a win that would have seen them qualify for the quaterfinals, where Kubo played a low driven croos to unmarked Nakajima, who got his shot blocked. Kubo turned in the rebound but was called offside.
● Although he’s left footed and expected to line up on the right side next season for Castilla, he demonstrated his ability to play on both wings. As the deeper of the two strikers, Kubo constantly looked to receive the ball on the wings -- constantly switching. In fact, most of his best play came through the left as shown by his heat map against Chile while he played very well on the right vs Ecuador.
● In the Japanese league there has been a collective agreement that Kubo’s defensive side of the game has improved by leaps and bounds. When his team was out of possession, not once did you find him slacking off. He’s buzzing around the field, cutting off passing lanes, covering his man and harrying the opposition defender.
Having went toe to toe with some of the game’s seasoned warriors, Kubo has left Brazil with his reputation enhanced. The talent was there to see, and Madridistas should be rightfully exited. Next season Castilla may see Rodrygo and Kubo on the flanks, constantly switching wings, roasting defenders and shooting — with Raúl coaching them. Let’s start a petition to form a group therapy session for Segunda B fullbacks.