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How Unai Emery and Take Kubo gave Villarreal a Europa League clean sheet

The tactics and positioning of the Real Madrid loannee against Maccabi made a huge difference.

Villarreal CF v SD Eibar - La Liga Santander Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

There was something different about Take Kubo against Maccabi Tel Aviv. I noticed it fairly early, tweeting about 15 minutes into the game that what made me happiest about Kubo’s performance so far was that he was staying in his lane instead of drifting all over the pitch following the ball like a U6 player. If that description sounds harsh to you, know it wasn’t meant to be. I’ve coached U6 soccer (trust me, it didn’t deserve to be called football), and convincing those kids to spread out and not crowd each other was a major point of emphasis. (In case you’re wondering, the Bertie Hurricanes played an aggressive pressing and counter-attacking style that won a lot of games, mostly because we had two really fast six year olds). Kubo literally reminded me of one of those young players- talented, but inevitably drawn to the ball.

You can see this in the positional maps of his first two starts in the Europa League. I’ll lead with the map from Qarabag, since it’s probably Kubo’s worst performance in the competition so far. We’ll start there and work our way up to the positives:

Kubo vs Qarabag

Here, Kubo stays largely on the left, but he also found himself drifting central and right to a great degree. His movement was so disruptive that it actually caused a pretty intense debate between me and Julian Pedersen (hey Julian) in our comment section of the game thread of that match over what exact formation we were even running. The formation looked entirely different in possession than it did in defense and Jaume Costa was all over the place, pushing up into the midfield when Kubo was on the left and dropping to the left when Kubo went walkabout all over the rest of the pitch. This unpredictability in shape gave us some pretty scary moments in the first hour or so of the match, and we were frankly fortunate to not concede before we did.

Now let’s look at Sivasspor, which I think many of you would instinctively consider to be Kubo’s best Villarreal performance to date, though I’ll have to disagree a little bit later:

Kubo vs Sivasspor

As you can see, Kubo was all over the place in this match. He skewed a little bit more to the right than he did the left, but also spent a ton of time centrally. Early on, his movement had devastating effects. He was in position to finish a tap in early in the game, then he assisted a Carlos Bacca goal. Then the wheels came off a bit defensively and we conceded twice before the half.

A big, big issue in this match defensive was that Alex Baena, instead of playing as a CM the way he was listed pre-match, ended up playing much more like a winger, and then Francis Coquelin pushed way up out of position leaving us very little in the way of midfield teeth. Kubo and Samu both contributed to a lack of shape stability though, as Chukwueze drifted between the right and left, sometimes leaving both he and Baena forward on the left and sometimes having both he and Kubo forward on the right. This contributed to the entire formation being unbalanced in transition and probably is part of what tempted Coquelin to get forward and take part in the action. While Kubo had a shining performance individually, his unpredictability of position left us vulnerable in our defensive shape.

Now let’s look at his positioning against Maccabi:

Kubo vs Maccabi

WOW, now there’s a difference. Kubo went left on occasion, but we have this bright beacon of action all in one spot in the right attacking midfield section of the pitch. This positioning allowed a variety of things, notably a decent amount of interaction with Iborra and Parejo in buildup, but also (and more importantly) the entire team to stay in their zones. On a wet pitch against an opponent we were trying to control, this was crucial. Kubo ultimately got his assist on the night, an absolutely wonderful ball to Bacca, but what really made this his best Europa League performance to date for me was the fact that this is the first time I’ve really seen Kubo contribute to the team shape in a positive way.

A great example of this contribution is Kubo’s pressing numbers. Against Sivasspor and Qarabag combined, Kubo pressed the ball 18 times. He pressed 17 times against Maccabi alone. The reason for this is that when the possession changed hands, instead of being far out of his assigned position, he was already in a place where he could step in and help the team recover the ball.

I have to think this is something Unai Emery has seen. It seemed to me that Kubo was operating under distinctly different instructions for this match than he has for his other Europa League appearances. I think Emery saw the issues with the shape and redirected Kubo to fix them, thus addressing our defensive concerns from the Sivasspor and Qarabag matches.

Kubo still has a long way to go. He led Villarreal in times dispossessed yesterday, and he absolutely must learn to take better care of the ball. But if he can remain positionally disciplined, and contribute positively to the team shape both offensively and defensively, then I think he will grow a lot as a player this year for Villarreal.