The curious case of Rafael and his increasingly uncertain future at Manchester United

rafa

“Rafael is one of the club’s brightest young prospects. He has no fear of playing and has great belief in himself. Rafael has all the attributes to become one of the best fullbacks in the world”.

Those were the words of Sir Alex Ferguson back in 2012 when Rafael signed a new contract securing his services till 2016.

Rafael da Silva, it’s fair to say, hasn’t kicked on since the retirement of Sir Alex.  The Brazilian fullback played his last competitive game for Manchester United against Yeovil in the third round of the FA Cup and the odds are that he will not feature in many more matches under Louis van Gaal.

The man who was tipped to be Gary Neville’s natural successor is now seemingly behind Antonio Valencia and Paddy McNair for the fullback role. Indeed this season he has only featured nine times in the Premier League with his last start being against Chelsea back in October.

So where has it gone wrong for Rafael and why is he behind seemingly inferior players? In terms of footballing attributes he is dynamic, quick, comfortable with either foot and is extremely good at supporting the attack.

Watching United build attacks down the right with the extremely one-footed Valencia or the inexperienced McNair one could argue that the team are crying out for someone who could add a little more verve, pace and penetration down that flank.

Rafael enjoyed his finest season at United in Ferguson’s swansong year. He started 27 Premier League games providing three assists and scoring three times, including a screamer against Queens Park Rangers and a superb equalizer against Liverpool at Anfield.

After such a good season one would have expected the Brazilian to progress and cement the right back slot however Rafael, like a number of players in the United squad, seemed to regress after Fergie’s departure.

The big question marks over Rafael’s game are his defensive capabilities and his temperament. For a player who has a reputation for being a hot head, Rafael has only been sent off three times during his United career.

Crucially, one of those reds came in a Champions League game in 2010 against Bayern Munich coached by a certain Louis van Gaal. No doubt the Dutch manager would have recalled that incident when assessing the relative merits of the Brazilian fullback.

The other ‘memorable’ straight red was when he kicked out at David Luiz in Chelsea’s 1-0 at Old Trafford in May 2013. On a side note Juan Mata scored the winner for the Blues that day.

Of his defensive play the Brazilian’s style is viewed as impetuous with a lack of positional sense (which brings into question his reading of the game) and is prone to lapses of concentration. In the 2014 Olympic final against Mexico it was Rafael’s careless pass within the first minute of the game that allowed El Tri to take the lead. The Mexicans went on to win the gold.

Earlier this season Rafael was part of the United defense that capitulated at Leicester giving away a penalty (though he was not the only player to underperform that day) and bizarrely was marking Didier Drogba at a corner which the giant Ivorian took advantage of to score when Chelsea visited Old Trafford. To be fair Rafael is far from alone amongst the current United defensive personnel in making backline blunders, whilst defending set-pieces in general have been problematic for Louis van Gaal’s side this season.

Maybe the Brazilian’s defensive frailty can be explained down to a lack of proper playing time. Again his best season was only a couple of years ago and that was when he had an extended run in the first team. For all the concerns about his defending Rafael, that season at least, displayed a maturity that was lacking in campaigns before whilst his attacking play pinned back the opposition fullbacks and wingers.

A lack of trust first from David Moyes, starting 18 league matches under the Scot, and then Louis van Gaal seems to have played a role in the limited number of games that the Brazilian has featured in but his injury record is doing just as much damage if not more. The fractured cheekbone he suffered against Yeovil was Rafael’s 27th setback in six years according to the Manchester Evening News. Van Gaal did praise the Brazilian’s resilience in playing on for nearly half an hour to see out the first half with the fracture hailing Rafael for his “fantastic attitude” and labeling him as “unbelievable”.

Like Phil Jones, Rafael is a victim of his all-action style which leaves him prone to injuries. Rafael has already suffered from two groin strains since last summer on top of his fractured cheek bone. His record can be interpreted in a couple of ways. One view is that he is unlucky with all the setbacks that he has suffered whilst the other harsher assessment decrying that the United fullback hasn’t adjusted his game enough to minimize the risk of injury.

So why pine for a player who still hasn’t ironed out the big flaws in his game? Simply put from an attacking perspective he offers more than Antonio Valencia and Paddy McNair. Rafael can provide the same thrust on the right flank that Luke Shaw (or Ashley Young) does on the left. With an attack that has yet to fire Rafael’s forward thinking mindset adds an extra dimension to United’s play and at the very least he can supply crosses for the strikers to attack. Indeed playing in a diamond gives the fullback an extra responsibility to go forward to provide width and Rafael has more tools in his locker to create potential goalscoring opportunities than either Valencia or McNair.

It’s worth remembering that Rafael was named Man of the Match in United’s game against West Ham United at Old Trafford. That game though was overshadowed by Wayne Rooney dismissal following a foul on Stewart Downing.

Perhaps the exclusion of Rafael is part of a wider issue for Louis van Gaal. The Brazilian is far from the only defender that van Gaal has question marks over and the Dutchman is opting for conservatism over a truly expansive approach. Statistics can only mask United’s performances up to a point.

That said time is running out for the 24-year old and it’s difficult to see Rafael getting a run-out in the first team unless there is an injury crisis which forces van Gaal’s hand. With United in the market the market for a right back the odds are against Rafael staying at Old Trafford beyond the summer.

Rafael is a polarizing figure amongst the Old Trafford faithful with fans and critics choosing to view his qualities in a different light. Is he committed or impetuous? Is he adventurous or defensively ill-disciplined? Is he feisty or just plain hot-headed?

Maybe that’s Rafael’s problem, he just poses too many questions. He may have already had his last drink at the last chance saloon. However there is a nagging feeling that he still has something to offer for United. It would be churlish to suggest that Rafael would solve all of United’s problems on the right but he surely isn’t a worse option than Valencia or McNair, is he?

 

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