There is something satisfying when watching fearless youth master a concept. Oftentimes, they dive head first into the deep end. Some never get comfortable in an area so foreign, while others get their “swimming legs” under them. Those that do the latter, will make some mistakes along the way. There almost certainty will be some struggle. In the deep end, it is an experience of flailing arms and gasps for air. That fearlessness momentarily escapes and the survival instincts to search for a breath appear. That breath, once found, allows youth to settle — to find comfort. Then, the fearless, fun, and unpredictable energy takes the place of the unknown. Quickly their comfort and skill level grows exponentially. Their personality comes to the fore and the struggles are long forgotten.
Still just a teenager, Takefusa Kubo was thrown in the deep end by Real Mallorca. The Japanese sensation had never played a single minute of La Liga football prior to this season, but has subsequently become a house-hold name. It was not quite as simple as placing the youngster on the pitch and seeing him immediately achieve. Kubo struggled to find his breath in the first half of the season. Out of Mallorca’s first eleven games of the season, the Japense starlet started just three, with sporadic minutes coming in the other fixtures. The then 18-year-old was, in all honesty, flailing his arms and attempting to hold down a starting position that he had yet to earn.
Around mid-February, Kubo found his swimming legs. After three consecutive substitute appearances, Kubo was proving he was simply too good to be kept on the bench. He was an immediate impact player. His ability to attract defenders, draw fouls, and create space for his teammates meant a Mallorca team desperate for an attacking spark could not keep him on the bench any longer.
The true coming out party was on February 21st in an away match vs Real Betis at a packed Benito Villamarin stadium in Seville. It was a 3-3 thriller with Kubo scoring a goal, assisting a goal, and creating the first goal off of his shot deflection. He was an 18-year-old outshining the likes of Nabil Fekir and Sergio Canales. So what facets of his game have changed or flourished in the second half of the season? The young prospect has thrived in the following:
Attracting Defenders & Creating Space in the Final Third:
A subtle touch, a change of speed, a drop of the shoulder – these are all attributes that allow a player to create a degree of space between himself and his defender. Takefusa Kubo has all those attributes in abundance. But, it is his ability to lure not one, but two, or three, or even four defenders in a single ball carrying sequence that separates him from other talented players. By attracting so many defenders his way, Kubo consequentially creates acres of space for his off-ball teammates.
One watches the clips above and just admires the supreme technical quality and the aesthetics of Kubo’s overall ability. Now watch the clip again — this time, focus on the Mallorca players off the ball. In nearly every sequence, Kubo has sucked in multiple defenders and he typically has two or even three teammates making corresponding runs free of any mark. The low center of gravity and close control brings parallels to Messi. The final product has not always been there at the end of these sensational runs, but Kubo has begun to incorporate a pass that will take his game to the next level:
In the above clip, Kubo once again draws three defenders, as if they are fish desperately trying to cling on to a baited hook. Once they are close enough, he finds the pocket of space at the top of the box for Salva Sevilla to take a first-time shot. Offensive actions like the above are what will send Kubo to the very top. It’s a part of his game he has refined at Mallorca and has continued to be a theme in his most recent matches. Attract multiple defenders, drive towards the byline, and reverse a pass to the top of the box where there is a free teammate with space to produce danger. Kubo’s game won’t be predicated on goals and assists, but he should always top the charts for goal created actions and for key passes. As we move towards the conclusion of the league season, his numbers are already there:
Line Breaking Vision & An Attacking Full-Backs Dream:
Vicente Moreno has primarily used Kubo on the right wing, but the Japanese player is equally adept playing as a central attacking midfielder or even as a second striker. His quickness of thought and his vision for space means he can unlock the tightest of defenses:
Gliding from the right to a central position and using his left foot to spot a pass – that’s where Kubo thrives. Unfortunately, Real Mallorca’s weakest position is their left fullback. That position has been riddled with injuries and has seen multiple players shuffle in and out of the spot. Had Mallorca had someone with the attacking engine of Jordi Alba, then Kubo could cut inside and play the cross field switch to the overlapping fullback on the opposite flank. How many times have Messi and Alba used that tactic to create a devastating effect? Notably, new recruit and winter loan signing, Alejandro Pozo (the right back), has benefited from playing with Kubo:
Pozo does have the engine to get up and down the right flank and loves to attack. Kubo rewards his fullback – who makes 60 yard runs regularly – not with a simple pass down the flank, but a pass that splits the opposition defense and leads into Pozo’s path. As a fullback, you cannot ask for better service. Given Kubo’s quality and his characteristics, he and Achraf Hakimi would have a been a fun pair to see down the right flank.
Areas for Improvement:
For all of Kubo’s brilliant offensive characteristics, he still has room to improve defensively. Under Vicente Moreno, he has learned how to defend space. He astutely shifts centrally when the ball is on the weak side, and presses the opposition fullback. He is comfortable in a low block of eight and can easily use his technique and acceleration to quickly counter-attack. Though, like many wingers, he struggles to track runners:
At the highest level, those errors get punished. In Zidane’s new Cristiano Ronaldo-less system, the wingers have to be reliable defensively and that includes tracking runners into the box. Joao Felix really should have scored the opportunity below:
Fortunately for Takefusa Kubo, learning this defensive skillset is one of the easiest of the game. It has to become a habit where, as a player, you are consistently “switched on”. This means you are mentally aware of your surroundings and your responsibilities in any given tactical scenario.
In fairness to Kubo, he is willing to put the defensive work in and battle relentlessly with the opposition, as per his defensive tussle with Kevin Rodrigues of Leganes below:
If he can stay switched on and compete like that in every moment of the game, he will have no trouble playing for one of the best clubs in the world.
Takefusa Kubo was right to ask Zidane to leave this summer in search of game time. He’s now played over 2,000 minutes in the first division. He’s played in a variety of roles (left wing, center attacking midfield, second striker, and right wing) as well as a variety of different systems. He has learned what it takes to compete at the highest level and has performed in the biggest games against Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid. He has proven that he is an elite dribbler and chance creator. His ability to combine with teammates and orchestrate attacks, his talent in attracting defenders and freeing up space for off the ball runners, combined with his supreme technique, make him one of the best teenagers in all of world football. Can he succeed at Real Madrid? If Vicente Moreno’s word means anything, then he surely will: “Without a doubt — I can see Kubo triumphing at Real Madrid. Today he is a much better player than when he arrived at Mallorca. And he has a lot of room to improve further. There are possibilities of him becoming a great player.”