Rafael has had a remarkable season and his attacking bursts are pivotal to United on the counter
Apparently, the Brazilians invented the fullback. The 1958 World Cup tournament saw the 1950 beaten finalists scrap the universally approved WM formation and adopt a 4-2-4 approach. The Brazilian fullback was born! Djalma Santos, Nilton Santos, Carlos Alberto, Jorginho, Roberto Carlos, Cafu and Daniel Alves are a few of the great players to grace the world game and Rafael looks to follow in their footsteps, despite the fact that ‘A Seleção’ have adopted more of a cautious European approach, sacrificing their famous flair and creativity in favour of tactical discipline and athleticism.
It should come as no surprise that the two most capped Brazilian players, Cafu and Roberto Carlos, are indeed fullbacks – a position that has been pivotal to the success of Brazilian football over the years. One of the most iconic moments is the galloping Carlos Alberto latching on to a Pele pass to hammer home the final goal in the 4-1 victory over the Italians in 1970. If you didn’t know where Rafael was from, you would immediately associate his style of play with a Brazilian.
His attacking runs have graced the Old Trafford turf since 2008, however – this season has seen a real breakthrough in his development as he reached 40 appearances for Manchester United. Below is a chart highlighting the progression of Rafael since he made his debut as a substitute in the 1-1 draw with Newcastle United in 2008. The chart only includes starts and not substitute appearances:
Click to enlarge.
This season, Rafael has made the right back slot his own. Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Antonio Valencia have all featured there – but the Brazilian has been the most prominent right back since Wes Brown in 2007/08 and I believe will reach the same level of consistency as Gary Neville did if he continues to perform at the levels of last season.
His twin brother, Fabio, moving on loan to QPR could well have lifted any burden or responsibility he may have felt. Playing at Manchester United is one thing, but when you’ve also got an invested interest in another player, this that can impact on your performances, so the move will have done both players a favour. The fact that Rafael had to step up on his own really highlights his character and determination.
Always a tenacious competitor and dogged in the tackle, Rafael’s enthusiasm can get he better of him. His two yellow cards and subsequent dismissal against Bayern Munich in 2010 cost the team greatly, especially considering how dominant United had been in the first half, racing into a 3-0 lead against the eventual finalists. His rash tackle on the experienced Van Bommel was a glimpse at how naive United’s young prodigy was. His tackle wasn’t a last ditch attempt on a flying winger, but a lunge that had him struggling not to end up in the east stand, the end United were attacking.
His second yellow resulted in Sir Alex Ferguson summarising the event as “Typical Germans”, however – the youngster was already on a yellow card and was up against Franck Ribery, who was starting to pull the strings. Ironically, it was the Brazilian’s pull on the Frenchman that cost him and the team dear. That sending off will always haunt the Brazilian, but it is clear that he has learned from his experiences that evening, which is evident in his style at present. Yes, you get games like Reading and Real Madrid away where he has a bit of a nightmare (and I’m sure he would have got sent off in the 4-3 victory had he not been substituted by Sir Alex).
He may still get very close to an attacker (especially a quick one), kicking wildly at times to win the ball, but you wouldn’t want to take this aggression out of his game. His discipline and intelligence (to press high up and start a counter) is a superb asset to United’s attacking arsenal. He has also demonstrated his goal scoring ability, notching up a screamer at QPR to opener the scoring in February. Right out of the Brazilian book of sublime goals. The 22 year old has established himself in United’s back four, but the next challenge for him individually, is to break through and become a regular in the national team ahead of Daniel Alves and Jean. He has, so far, only amassed two caps for his country – both coming in friendly matches before the Olympics in London, but he does have time on his side.
He clearly, as we all do, holds Sir Alex Ferguson in an extremely high regard - so it will be interesting to see how David Moyes uses him and how he responds now that Sir Alex has moved on. Regular readers will know that I spend too much time betting online and although Moyes has already dipped into the transfer market for a right back, my money is safely on Rafael keeping his full back spot.
Valencia has had an indifferent season to say the least, but can do a job at right back when United are chasing a goal. Likewise, Chris Smalling has also slotted in well at fullback – and can be used against more physical sides that have a lot of height. Jones offers the same attacking bursts as Rafael, but he will surely end up at centre half in the next few seasons. Rafael epitomises what United stand for. Young, attacking and full of character. He is clearly a well liked member of the squad and will no doubt be encouraged with his progression this season. O menino cresceu.