When Takefusa Kubo joined Villarreal on loan from Real Madrid in the summer the move looked tailor-made for both player and club. But, so far, Kubo has been eased into life with the Yellow Submarine and, remarkably, has not been given a single start. But, these being difficult times, perhaps we should choose a generous description for coach Unai Emery’s astonishing policy. Can we agree on: “Drastically and even embarrassingly over-conservative?”
Emery’s Villarreal drew 0-0 with Atletico Madrid at the weekend and the Japan international, a 24-karat player in the making, who’ll be world class once given sufficient playing time, was named as a substitute for the fifth straight match.
In fact, this pearl of a footballer, loaned out by Madrid with the explicit intention that he gains experience and returns to the Bernabeu with at least the same impetus, reputation and impact as Martin Odegaard (who excelled at Real Sociedad last season), has received precisely 54 Liga minutes out of 450 under Emery.
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If you take skill, threat, pace, natural technique dribbling and confidence into account Kubo is, unquestionably, in the top four or five Villarreal footballers. Yet he’s their 16th most-used player — it’s utterly bewildering. Indefensible, I think. However, Emery, fair play to him, did defend his decision to continue ignoring Kubo.
But before sharing what Emery, who was sacked by Arsenal last season, said, here’s the context. Emery had previously competed against Diego Simeone’s Atletico 12 times in various competitions before this match, failing to win even once. Twice Los Colchoneros knocked an Emery team out of a cup competition at the semifinal stage, once in the Europa League and also in the Copa Del Rey.
For any senior coach, particularly one who has won trophies in Spain and France, it’s a pretty miserable stat. One which you’d imagine a man like Emery, apparently brought in by president Fernando Roig to elevate Villarreal above the exceptional job Javi Calleja did last season, might be keen to end?
At the Wanda Metropolitano not only did Emery leave Kubo out of the starting lineup, again, he dithered until the 85th minute before throwing him into the action. A decision which will have left Kubo, the fanatical Japanese media, Real Madrid and, I’ll wager, the vast majority of Villarreal fans as deeply unimpressed as, I admit, I was. Perhaps Emery’s own employers, too? We can only guess.
Post-match, Villarreal’s coach began by getting the his player’s age wrong before going on to admit that it was a fear of the consequences which left him limiting the 19-year-old to just a handful of minutes.
“He’s 18, he got more more minutes under his belt today,” Emery explained. “All the games and minutes Take accumulates are to his benefit. Also, he has to adapt to a new level of demand. He was in the Primera [at Mallorca] last season, had a good season and let’s now see whether he can do the same for us.
“Take has a really clearly mapped out road forward and that’s because I speak to him a lot. I think he understands, but it’s a process. I must insist that making changes wasn’t easy for a coach today because the XI on the pitch were really focused on and ‘involved’ in their tasks.
“If I brought someone on who didn’t hit the same level of implication and clarity about what their tasks were then it would be risky. So I accepted that risk and responsibility, for Samu [Chukweze] and Take coming on, but it was more about giving them a chance to learn.
“It was a really tough match for them to get involved in. I wanted to see if we could produce a brilliant moment, of Samu bursting into space or Take from the left — an action which wins us the game. But, of course, we had to continue with the tight block we were presenting, and ensure that it wouldn’t crack. In this sense Take and Samu have a way to go before they ‘get’ it.
“Take needs to work on this element. He’s at a higher level now. You’ve got to accumulate experience, maturity and depth to add to the qualities he’s already got. I’m right on top of both of these players in that sense. I took a big risk by making the change, a risk that the team wouldn’t be as hard to break down.”
This smacks of a lack of confidence in his men from Emery, an old-fashioned Catenaccio-style thinking, an ultra-conservatism which always, always states: “It’s better never to risk and thus avoid defeat than it is to roll the dice, stretch for a victory but then head home beaten.” It’s an outdated, old-fashioned philosophy which is very far from how the people who hired him think about things.
Kubo is small (5-foot-6), young (19), and easily the least experienced of Villarreal’s first-team players. Fine. But the same could have been said of him last year at Mallorca.
He was the same height, just turned 18 and far behind the rest of Vicente Moreno’s squad in terms of how much elite football he’d played in Spain. At first the Valencia-born coach, now in charge at Espanyol, didn’t trust Kubo. It took until Matchday 6 for the Japan international to get a start. Which was to Mallorca’s detriment.
Kubo went on to be Mallorca’s stand-out footballer all season, he performed in wins over Real Madrid, Valencia and Villarreal. And the four goals he scored all won points — not one was scored in a defeat. He got the final goal to make victory secure against Villarreal and Levante, Mallorca’s third in a six-goal thriller draw at Betis plus the winner against Eibar away. Once trusted, Kubo flourished and threw in goal assists to boot. All of his goals came in a match when he was in the starting XI. I can only assume that Emery wasn’t watching last season.
By the way, neither Emery nor Moreno are the first in Spain to show an alarming lack of faith in this ultra-exciting Japanese attacker. He was scouted and recruited by Barcelona, made a brilliant attacking foil for Ansu Fati in the youth system, scored for fun, but was a victim of FIFA deciding that Barca had broken rules regarding recruitment of non-EU footballers who are regarded as “minors.”
Barcelona were banned from the transfer market, Kubo was forced to return to Japan and bide his time until he came of age (18). But worse news awaited. In theory he should have returned to his “parent” club (FC Barcelona) but then-director of football, Pep Segura, felt that the Camp Nou side could spend their money better elsewhere and seemed to believe that Barcelona’s current Japanese talent, Hiroki Abe, was superior. (Hiroke, already 21, remains with Barca B, hasn’t sniffed the Camp Nou first team and doesn’t look close to Kubo in talent, maturity or chutzpah.)
Just for the record: What happened to Moreno? He was relegated with Mallorca and is now in Spain’s Segunda Division. And Segura, who calamitously failed to repatriate this shining talent who’d grow up in La Masia? He was removed from his position in July last year, a couple of weeks after Kubo signed for Real Madrid.
This pattern of those who fail to trust Kubo coming a cropper may be one Emery wishes to mull upon during the international break. Look, I know that the Basque coach has a winning record, that he’s been in charge at some major clubs and also I’m crystal clear that he sees Kubo in training. We don’t.
When he explained, post the 0-0 draw at Atleti, that there was a risk of upsetting the equilibrium of a team which was thwarting Simeone’s side that was a perfectly credible opinion. But what has happened to starting Kubo rather than dilly-dallying over whether to bring him on in the 70th minute or the 85th?
What has happened to trusting youth along the lines of Johan Cruyff’s twin philosophy that “if they’re good enough they’re old enough” and “throw talented young players in to situations which, theoretically, are too difficult for them because only then can they show their true quality and character”? Are you a Cruyff-disbeliever, Unai? I’d hate to think that because he is widely quoted as being Atleti’s first choice when it eventually comes to replacing Simeone he was doubly determined “not to lose” against potential future employers rather than willing to roll the dice in order to win. I’m sure that’s not the case.
Kubo has many virtues which, as yet, Emery is squandering. He’s a better footballer than the admittedly hard-working Moi Gomez. He’s going to be a wonderful creative force behind Gerard Moreno and Paco Alcacer, producing loads of chances and actual assists for the two Spain internationals. He’s proven that La Liga’s defenders not only hold no fear for him but that he knows how to frighten them.
It feels horribly like Emery went to Atleti with the mind-set “we mustn’t lose at any cost!” rather than approaching the task in hand by beginning with “How do we beat Atleti?” Pure conservatism which may be partly derived from being given a humiliating whipping, 4-0, at Camp Nou a couple of weeks ago.
But it’s overdue that Emery puts faith in one of his most creative, technical and daring footballers. Time he allows Villarreal to make and take more goal chances. Time he gets in line with the true personality of the Yellow Submarine — play with verve, play entertainingly but at all costs, play to win.
Come on Unai, it’s Take time.