In second half stoppage time last weekend, I sat and watched in dread as Dallas’ Jáder Obrian stepped around his marker and threaded a pass to the penalty spot where Jesús Ferreira was waiting. Here we go again, I thought, another promising effort undone by a defensive lapse in the second half. But before Ferreira could slot the ball home, a streak of blue and white overtook him and threw a desperate leg in to deflect the shot out for a corner. No need to check the number of the game saver. Andrés Cubas is where opposition attacks go to die.
While it’s the strikers, play-makers and keepers who get all the glory, teams succeed or fail on the strength of their mid-field. Among these positions, there is none more important than the role of the number six, the defensive midfielder. As Carol Ancelotti puts it, “The number six position is the key to everything. He must be a player who can defend, support the attack, and control the game’s rhythm.”
Over the past year, Whitecaps fans have had the opportunity to witness first-hand just how crucial the role of the defensive midfielder is in the modern game. When the Whitecaps belatedly made the signing of Andrés Cubas official last April, few fans had ever heard of the Paraguayan international. Despite his Boca Juniors pedigree, cynical Vancouver fans questioned whether a player from a recently relegated Nîmes Olympique side could really change the team’s fortunes. It would be almost two months before they got the opportunity to find out.
By the time Cubas made his first start on June 18th in Dallas, the Whitecaps had only managed to win five of their first 15 games, tying two others and losing the rest. And while other factors played a part in their resurgence in the second half of the season, there can be little doubt that Cubas had a starring role in both their league play and in their Canadian Championship victory.
The role of the number six is to disrupt and generally create chaos in the opposition attack. They must be both physically and mentally agile in order to read the play, anticipate their opponents’ movements, and position themselves effectively to deliver tackles and make interceptions.
Just how good is Cubas at this? Despite playing only 18 games last season, he led the team in tackles with 36. If he maintained this rate over the course of a full season, he would have finished second in the entire MLS (which, coincidentally, is where he finds himself today after three games). He also led the Whitecaps in interceptions with 34. Again, at that rate, over the course of a full season he would be in the top three in MLS.
But Cubas doesn’t just win possession. As the number six, he is also the pivot. He transitions the team from defense to attack. Although he doesn’t often appear on the score sheet for assists, Cubas is second only to Gauld when it comes to completed passes in the forward zone and he might have led the team if he played a full season. Among all Whitecaps who have played any real minutes last year, he had the second highest passing accuracy.
When Sporting Director Axel Schuster announced the signing of Cubas as their new number six he said:
“We think that he is the difference maker in his position as Ryan Gauld is at his. It was a waiting game for the right guy. We are up to wait. And now we have to get him in and to show everyone that he is the right guy.”
A year later we can safely say that Schuster and director of recruitment Nikos Overheul found their man.
While he will seldom lift the fans out of their seat, Cubas is among the very best in the league at his position, the kind of relentless destroyer that gives opponents nightmares. His contributions might not always be as obvious as a game saving block in stoppage time, but they are plain to see once you start to look for them. Whitecaps fans should appreciate what they have in Cubas.