Interview: Analyzing Real Madrid’s Japanese sensation Takefusa Kubo’s debut La Liga-season on loan at Mallorca

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Photo: RCD Mallorca official Twitter account

During Real Madrid’s 2019-20 pre-season, a video clip of a new youth player running eights around seasoned vets like Varane, Marcelo and Kaylor Navas went viral. The little magician was 18-year-old Japanese prodigy Takefusa Kubo, who “Los Blancos” had just signed. Kubo has spent the season on loan with RCD Mallorca, and Football Elements have interviewed Mallorca-based journalist, Alex Fitzpatrick, who covers Mallorca for La Liga TV about what type of player he is, how he’s performed this season and future predictions.

Asia is becoming more and more of a talent factory in football today with Japan and South Korea spearheading the movement. Japan is starting to bear fruit from their continuous investment into domestic football. For example development camps and increasing the exposure of the domestic league (J-League) such as increased marketing and expanding stadiums, but also increasing the footballing quality by signing established foreign players (David Villa, Iniesta, Torres, Vermaelen, Sergi Samper, Jô).

Names from the Far East like Takumi Minamino, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Masaya Okugawa, Hwang Hee-Chan, and Kangin Lee have all left their imprint on the European scene and on football fans this season. But then there’s one who’s in a league of his own: Takefusa Kubo. The 18-year-old prodigy is predicted by many to become Japan’s first-ever football mega-star.

Photo: JFA.jp

Kubo joined Barcelona’s academy, La Masia, at the age of ten in 2011 and left everyone at the academy gobsmacked. In his first season at the club, he scored 74 goals in 30 games. He was quickly dubbed “The Japanese Messi”, but journalist Gabriele Anello told website JOE.co.uk in an interview, however, that “ Kubo might be one of the greatest talents you’ll ever see in the next decade, but he is a different player from Messi”.

Former La Masia manager, Joan Vila, revealed in an interview that Barcelona had very big plans for Kubo – but his stay at Barcelona and La Masia ended abruptly in 2015. Barcelona was found guilty to have breached FIFA’s international transfer rules of recruiting players under the age of 18, Kubo being one of them, and were forced to let their academy-star go and Kubo was forced to return home.

Kubo returned to Japan and signed for Tokyo FC, where he spent some time with the reserves before being promoted to the senior squad and making his J-League debut at 15 years and 5 months old. Five months down the road from his debut, he scored his first J-League goal to become the club’s all-time youngest scorer.

The now Japan international played 24 J-League games for Tokyo FC and during a brief loan-spell at Yokohama Marinos. However, it wasn’t until his final season in 2019 where he started to really make an impact and became a key player on senior level with 4 goals and 4 assists in 13 league games for Tokyo FC. His talent has always been evident though, regardless of the number of minutes played or his impact in terms of numbers produced. So, when he turned 18 and decided to return to Europe, big clubs like PSG, Barcelona and Real Madrid lined up for his signature. Real Madrid drew the longest straw in the end, and Kubo snubbed his previous club FC Barcelona.

“Real Madrid were clear that they wanted to sign me. They showed me the plan they had for my career and I really liked it; that convinced me. I really liked Real’s goal in a sporting sense, the plan they had for me for the next few years, and what they thought about me for the future.”
-Kubo in an interview with Marca after signing with Real Madrid.

Photo: RealMadrid.com

Real’s initial plan was to keep him and let him play in their reserves, Castilla, with Vinicíus Jr, Rodrygo and Reiner Jesus. Zidane was clear after Kubo’s impressive pre-season that he wanted him to stay, but Kubo himself said that he wanted to be loaned out to gain senior experience if an opportunity presented itself.

And that opportunity came with Real Mallorca. Kubo left towards the end of the transfer window on a one-year loan deal to accustom himself to life as a senior player.

Before the season was postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus, he had played 24 games, scored 3 goals and made 3 assists for Mallorca. Football Elements has interviewed Mallorca-based journalist, Alex Fitzpatrick, who covers Real Mallorca for La Liga TV about his season.

What has Kubo’s role been this season? How has he played?

Alex Fitzpatrick: He has evolved as the season has progressed. He arrived with a huge reputation but with no top-level first-team experience. You could see in his first performances that he was very naive and inexperienced, but that he was a player with a lot of quality.

But to lay out the ground, you first need to understand how Mallorca’s coach, Vincente Moreno, works. He is a manager with values. You must earn a place, regardless if you’re a €10 million transfer (which Mallorca could only dream about doing) or if you’re promoted from the academy. You will start on the bench and have to work to earn a starting spot, and there was no difference for Take Kubo. For Moreno it’s about mentality: if you have a place in the starting eleven it’s because you’ve earned it. By training well, by playing well when you’ve come off the bench and by performing well when you have a starting spot. You don’t walk into it because you’re a Real Madrid super-talent. Kubo was in and out of the side quite a lot in the beginning up until around Christmas.

His earlier performances were in line with a young inexperienced player, who didn’t yet have what he need needed to have in terms of top-level game experience. Some of his decision-making was quite poor, but his skill-level was clearly high. In one of his first games when he came off the bench, he picked up the ball up on the right-hand side, he dropped the shoulder, did a stepover, pushed the ball past the defender who brought him down and conceded a penalty.

His role has generally been on the right or the left-wing, or both whilst shifting sides during a game. Mallorca has mainly played a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 this season and he’s been on the wide position on either side, but mostly on the right where he can cut in and shoot. Mallorca has also experimented with a 5-3-2 with two wingbacks and a three-man midfield in which Kubo has operated as an offensive player. But his impact has been more consistent at either on the right or the left-wing as there’s less emphasis on him tracking back and defending there because Mallorca generally plays with two holding midfielders in Idrissu Baba and Salva Sevilla that allows the wingers more freedom.

Vincente Moreno, however, is a very cautious manager. His teams play quite direct in terms of getting the ball quickly up the pitch to an attacking position and does not put an emphasis on possession. So, Kubo has been playing in a defensive side, that’s more cautious and commits fewer men forwards. That has generally impacted Kubo to not being able to show what he could really do. That’s natural though for when you play in a team in a relegation battle. However, in more recent games, Moreno has played more offensively which has released Kubo into more attacking positions. After that he’s gotten more shots in on goal, scored some goals, assisting some, and having a real impact.

What are his excel qualities and what are his areas in need of improvement?

Fitzpatrick: He’s a player who wants to demonstrate his skill-level, which is incredibly good. He’s without a doubt the most skillful player at Mallorca. He’s got very, very quick feet. He can strike the ball well with both feet. He can go the opposite way because of it, so instead of always cutting inside and opt for his left-foot he can go down to the byline and put a cross into the box with his right. That’s very good because the defenders don’t know if he will go to the left or right. His ability to take on a player is great.

Consistency and decision-making are sometimes a weakness for him, but that will come with experience. However, today he can sometimes try to take on a player in not necessarily the right part of the pitch and that can lead to trouble in terms of conceding. There’s always a decision for a player of risk and reward, is the risk worth the reward? And sometimes he takes risks which are not worth the reward, like taking on people in his own final third or close to the half-way line that could allow the opposition a quick counter.

His physical stature can harm him and be a weakness. I don’t think he’s not strong, but inevitably you will be muscled out of things if you play against those who are six or eight inches taller than you and weigh 20 kilograms more. Therefore, his strengths are going to be his agility, his ability to quickly change directions, his speed, quick feet, and the deception he can give to the defender he’s playing against.  

I would liken him to a player like Eden Hazard. He’s got a similar stature, he’s got a low center of gravity, he’s a tricky player, he’s an incredibly skillful player and he draws the foul incredibly well. Kubo can also play the number 10 role and on the wings, much like Eden Hazard. Hazard was mainly played in the wide positions in his early career and then as he grew in experience, quality and stature he was moved into the number 10 position and completely ran the show for Chelsea. That is also the route I think Take Kubo will take. However, he will have an incredibly tough competition there at Real Madrid.

What would a good next step be for Takefusa Kubo?

Fitzpatrick: I think the best thing for his development is that he goes out on loan again next season, even though he’s publicly said he wants to be a part of the Real Madrid squad next season. I think there could be a trade-off between Real Madrid and Real Sociedad. I firmly believe that with the level Martin Ödegaard has played with this season, he will go back to Real Madrid and be part of their starting eleven. Therefore my feeling is that Take Kubo – a similar player in a similar position as Ödegaard was in a year ago – will go in the opposite direction to Real Sociedad. That is only my feeling though, not something that has been said behind closed doors or something that I have any information on.

Mallorca was the right place for Kubo this season to gain experience. Next season he needs to be in a team that plays attacking football where he can express himself in the way that he can do. But this year at Mallorca will have been an incredible footballing lesson for him, he has been given an education about football there that he will never get at Real Sociedad. The defensive side of the game, the hard work off-the-ball part of the game, and not playing in a dominant side. But I think Real Sociedad would be the right place for Take Kubo’s future development next season.

Can he live up to the hype of becoming a big global superstar and the biggest thing to come out of Asia in a footballing sense?
Fitzpatrick:
I think the talk about him as the next global superstar is a two-folded. Firstly, he’s attracted the interest of two of the biggest clubs on the planet in Real Madrid and Barcelona very early in his career. Whilst he has an incredible skill-level, that doesn’t mean you’ll be a great eleven-a-side player. For Take Kubo, I think it does. The question is: how good can he be? The potential is there without a doubt. The things he is doing at this age is obviously fantastic.

But the fact that he is Japanese has increased the hype. In one way from the Japanese side, but in another way from the Real Madrid-media side.

From the Japanese side, it’s ultimately because they are fanatical, and they have few players who play at a high standard in European football. Kubo has played in both Barcelona and Real Madrid at 18-years-old, and that increases the hype and media attention. They are longing for him to be successful. At Mallorca, there are Japanese journalists who come over for every single game from Japan.

Kubo was even featured in TV-commercials during the half-time breaks when the Japan national team played before he had even featured in the national team, journalist Gabriele Anello said to JOE.co.uk.

On the other side of it, if you look at it from a commercial perspective for Real Madrid and Real Mallorca, it makes sense to hype this kid up. To give him lots of media and lots of PR. There’s such an untapped market in Japan, and if all the Japanese supporters become Real Madrid fans because of Takefusa Kubo, then Real Madrid becomes the biggest club in Japan – and that’s a huge market.

There’s a commercial worldwide battle between Real Madrid, Barcelona and a couple of English clubs, and winning the market in Japan is a huge commercial share to win.

The media outlets also like to hype things up to draw traffic towards their own sites. “This is the next Messi”, “this is the Japanese Messi”, you know. It’s the way media works. As Kubo is a relevant topic, hyping articles up about him and getting them to latch on in Japan generate huge traffic and becomes a win for the media.

His next step isn’t Real Madrid, no matter what he says, but it’s a team that is competing for a European spot or has European football. You’d be killing two birds with one stone if the team has European football. He’d get both top 5 league experience but also European experience of teams that plays different styles and high-pressure games. More tournaments also means more games to play.

What I will say is that Take Kubo is the most mature, level-headed player of that age that I’ve ever come across. He’s incredibly well-prepared to deal with the exposure he’s receiving. He’s not the sort of player where the pressure is going to get to him. He’s very driven, he’s very motivated, very focused, and he’s a very intelligent young man.

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