A former La Masia product who joined Real Madrid at the age of 18, Takefusa Kubo is taking La Liga by storm in the txuri-urdin of Real Sociedad.
Labelled the ‘Japanese Messi’ during his teenage years, the 22-year-old has flourished under the guidance of Imanol Alguacil and has played a key role in Sociedad's evolution into a Champions League force.
It’s not all been plain-sailing for Kubo and the early fascination around his career was at risk of evaporating with Real Madrid, for whom he didn’t make a single competitive appearance across a three-year stint.
The attacking midfielder endured futile loan spells with Mallorca, Villarreal and Getafe but it’s in San Sebastian that he’s prospered.
A return of nine goals and seven assists in the 2022/23 campaign only scratches the surface of Kubo’s influence in Sociedad’s success last term and as the centrepiece of Alguacil’s system, his stock has soared with a series of magnificent individual performances.
In the latest edition of our Scouting Europe series, we delve into the development of Kubo from Real Madrid castaway to Real Sociedad sensation.
From Kubo to Kaoru Mitoma, the city of Kawasaki has become a hub for young Japanese football talents.
It’s where Kubo’s youth career started but his progression was far from straightforward. His association with Barcelona began at the age of eight, representing the club in a tournament in Belgium where he impressed and was named MVP.
Upon his return to Japan, he was scouted by Kawasaki Frontale but it wasn’t long before Barcelona were in contact again. He was invited to join the club’s iconic academy, La Masia, at the age of 10.
The idea of a one-way flight to Catalonia would be daunting for any young child and yet it didn’t seem to faze Kubo. He would catch the eye in his first youth season, scoring 74 goals in 30 games.
Aged 15, Kubo’s time at La Masia concluded when Barcelona were found guilty of violating FIFA’s international transfer policy. Ineligible to play for the club, he returned to Japan and joined FC Tokyo’s youth system.
After a fruitful spell in the Japanese capital, Barcelona had hoped to bring Kubo back when he reached 18. Much to their dismay, it was their arch-rivals Real Madrid who paved Kubo’s return to Spain.
Signing a six-year contract, Los Blancos had outlined a detailed plan of how Kubo’s career would progress. A season with the club’s B team, Castilla, was on the agenda before being incorporated into the first team in the following campaign.
That plan ultimately never materialised.
Kubo was always touted to be a star and such expectation may have weighed heavy on his young shoulders.
He was shipped out on loan to RCD Mallorca and made his La Liga debut aged 18, thus making him the youngest Japanese player to feature in Europe’s top five leagues. He scored four goals that term but his time on the Balearic Island was soured by Mallorca’s eventual relegation.
Keen to give him more experience in the Spanish top flight, Villarreal were Kubo’s next loan destination but he managed just 299 minutes across 13 matches under Unai Emery. He joined Getafe halfway through that campaign but was unable to settle and Kubo then went full circle with another loan to Mallorca; although this proved to be another uninspiring stint.
Take Kubo is a great player; terrible hair, but a great player. He needs consistency and freedom.
Javier Aguirre, RCD Mallorca manager
Sociedad came to his rescue in the summer of 2022.
La Real were acquiring an attacking player with a wealth of talent who was desperate to prove himself. Madrid were able to cash in, receiving a €6million fee for a player deemed surplus to requirements.
More importantly, a sell-on profit clause of 50% was inserted during negotiations; Florentino Perez will be laughing his way to the bank given Sociedad’s current valuation of Kubo stands at €66m.
It was a deal that worked for all parties.
There’s an air of tranquillity around San Sebastian.
Alguacil, alongside club president Jokin Aperribay and director of football Robert Olabe, has fostered a winning culture, built upon an attacking philosophy and a focus on youth development.
For a player that’s lacked continuity in the early stages of his career, it appeared to be the perfect environment for Kubo to flourish.
If he was looking to make an early statement, he duly delivered. Against Cadiz on the opening day of the 2022/23 La Liga season, Sociedad kicked off the new campaign with a win thanks to a debut goal from Kubo.
Ghosting from the left between the two central defenders, Mikel Merino’s pass found him in acres of space and Kubo applied the touch and a composed finish to make a dream start to his Sociedad career.
Kubo's attributes ensured he slotted seamlessly into Alguacil’s high-intensity, aggressive and attacking style.
Throughout his first season he was a revelation. Delivering 13 goal involvements, Kubo emerged as a vital component in Sociedad's return to the Champions League.
That form has continued into the current campaign and Kubo's electrifying performances have been at the forefront of the La Real's success, most notably in their progression to the Champions League knockout stages.
His start to the season was exceptional. He was named Man of the Match in each of his first four starts, including the 5-3 win over Granada in which he scored a brace.
Mesmerising spectators at the Bernabéu, Kubo received further plaudits for a another stellar performance, typified by a divine pass that split the Real Madrid defence and provided Ander Barrenetxea with the opening goal; he's not afraid to turn it up a notch against his former employers.
But perhaps the most iconic moments of his Sociedad career, and another example of his big game mentality, have come in the Basque derby.
A special and revered affair, Kubo etched his name into Erreala folklore when he nutmegged Dani Vivian on the edge of the penalty area and slotted the ball beyond Unai Simon.
In their latest encounter with Athletic Club, Kubo was on the scoresheet again but this time it was his celebration that stole the headlines. Deceiving Simon with his finish, the forward wheeled away before a rapturous blue sea of supporters and proceeded to... twerk.
La Real helped me to vindicate myself as a footballer, I was not in a good moment and they helped me get back on the train which takes you to success.
Takefusa Kubo, October 2023
The diminutive forward is predominantly played as an inverted winger from the right, giving him licence to cut inside onto his preferred left foot. Alguacil also has a tendency to deploy a more conventional 4-4-2 depending on the opposition.
When utilised in an attacking three you will observe Kubo interchange positions with Brais Mendez and Alexander Sorloth, the fluidity of Sociedad’s attack favouring Kubo’s exceptional dribbling ability and offering the freedom to drive at opposition.
Last season, he averaged 4.32 progressive carries – a progressive carry is defined as a carry in the opposition half which is greater than five metres – which ranked him in the top 2% of La Liga forwards. It’s an element of his game that he’s been able to take to another level, averaging 5.46 progressive carries this campaign.
Not only is he effective on transition but his directness provides a valuable threat in the opposition third. With a low centre of gravity that makes him difficult to dispossess, Kubo ranked in the top five players for carries into the penalty area; a key facet in Sociedad's chance creation.
La Liga 2023/24: Carries into penalty area (per 90)
|Vinicius Junior (Real Madrid)
|Rodrygo (Real Madrid)
|Nico Williams (Athletic Club)
|Takefusa Kubo (Real Sociedad)
|Bryan Zaragoza (Granada)
*Statistics sourced via FBref.com and Opta
He's not the sort to keep his head down either; Kubo possesses the vision and innovation to create chances for his colleagues, as he's demonstrated with 3.54 shot-creating actions per game.
His finishing has improved considerably. His goals to xG ratio of +2.8 is bettered by only four players in La Liga, one of which is Jude Bellingham.
For what he lacks in aerial ability he atones with his technical ability. The finesse of his first touch makes him virtually press-resistant, escaping the challenges of any harassing defender even when he's facing his own goal.
And in one-on-one situations, Kubo possesses the sharp acceleration, incalculable movement and intricate control to manipulate his defender, lure them in and either beat them or force a mistake.
One applaudable feature of Kubo's game is his work ethic.
The Japanese star is not afraid to put in the hard miles, happy to track back and assist in his defensive duties.
One of Alguacil's key principles is to press. When out of possession, the primary objective of his team is to retrieve the ball as quickly as possible.
No club in La Liga has won possession in the opposition third more than Real Sociedad across the last two seasons and Kubo is a pivotal reason why they rank second in PPDA (passes per defensive action) behind Barcelona this term.
Kubo will hassle defenders that are attempting manoeuvre possession from their own penalty area. Think less of a lunatic chasing the ball around but a calculated approach, one where Kubo recognises the vulnerability of the opposition and deftly springs his attack.
To Win Outright - 250/1
To Win Outright Without Barcelona & Real Madrid - 12/1
To Finish in Top 4 - 5/2
Copa del Rey:
To Win Outright - 16/1
To Win Outright - 80/1
To Reach Final - 40/1
To Win Group D - 6/5
Conceptualising a '100-year vision' that would culminate in a World Cup triumph by 1992, Japan have all the ingredients to become an international powerhouse on the football stage.
Their incredible run at the 2022 World Cup, in which they beat Spain and Germany in the group stages before enduring penalty heartbreak against Croatia in the knockout stages, has only ignited their hunger for success in the game.
Featuring prominently in the Japanese squad that made headlines in Qatar was Kubo, who started in two of Japan's three group matches. Incidentally in all of the games he started, Hajime Moriyasu's side were victorious. He was expected to feature against Croatia, only to be ruled out through injury a day prior.
Like Sociedad, Japan's brand of football is centred around a high press, utilising the energy and endeavour of their forward players.
Competition for attacking places is intense - Mitoma, Daizen Maeda, Daichi Kamada, Ritsu Doan, Takumi Minamino and Ayase Ueda are all consistently vying for a starting role - but in a system that's conducive to Kubo's attributes, he is expected to flourish on the international stage for many years to come.
Japan to win 2026 World Cup -