With the practice of good defending seemingly on hiatus in the Premier League this season, it is refreshing to witness the continued growth of one of the game’s most promising defenders, Manchester United’s Rafael da Silva. The young Brazilian has matured into a fine wing-back with a strong cause for suggesting he is in fact the best in his position in the English game.
When Rafael and twin brother Fabio arrived at the Manchester giants in the summer of 2008 the club was on top of the football tree, both domestically and continentally, but what Sir Alex Ferguson’s side sorely missed was a solid figure at right-back. With the continued injury woes of club captain, Gary Neville, Wes Brown had commendably deputised throughout the illustrious 2007/08 campaign. Rafael showed potential to fill that berth in a more dynamic style than Brown or ‘Mr Versatility’ John O’Shea.
To begin with, while the potential was certainly there, the on-field manifestation of his skills wasn’t quite on equal par. For a while it seemed like the da Silva twins posed the proverbial ‘round peg, square hole’ situation; wingers masquerading as full-backs. Whereas Fabio still gives the impression that the full-back role is a stifling existence for him on the football pitch, Rafael has began to acclimatise in the role to the point of excellence.
There is a rambunctiousness to Rafael’s play that is reminiscent of a crazed terrier chasing a ball around the local park on a Sunday morning, but to this effervescence the young Brazilian has added a real understanding of his defensive duties. Too oft in his first few seasons – and this was why he was often overlooked in favour of Brown, O’Shea and even Phil Jones – was he too reckless in his pursuit of the ball. His positional sense was woeful and affected the back four’s overall shape. Tackling was a bit of an issue also; he stacked up a few bookings (plus two red cards) for some rather over-zealous challenges, most of which didn’t need to be attempted.
However, at the beginning of the 2012/13 campaign Sir Alex Ferguson placed a tremendous amount of faith in his young Brazilian prodigy when he handed him the number 2 jersey previously worn by Manchester United legend, Gary Neville. It was the biggest statement of intent that Rafael was now considered the first-choice right back in the squad and already he’s played more matches by December than he had in the entire of the last season. Simply put, Rafael has matured.
Whereas his play was hampered by naivety and recklessness, he has now performed consistently well in the current United set-up. His indefatigable energy still propels him up and down the pitch like Javier Zanetti on speed, but now his game is rounded by his stricter adherence to his defensive duties. He finds himself in better positions on the pitch, preferring to jockey the winger rather than immediately dive in; sometimes he could rectify such recklessness with his pace, but other times he was beaten all ends up. Now, his positional awareness, especially with such a hard-working winger as Valencia tracking back to offer assistance, allows him to close down the opposition much more effectively. He blocks far more crosses coming into the box that his compatriot at left-back, Patrice Evra, and looks markedly more astute in the tackle, too.
His intelligence on the pitch is not to be underestimated either. Too often we see teams neglecting to field a man on the post when facing corners, but whatever the situation Rafael is on that goal-line and more than once his quick-thinking has stopped Manchester United from conceding. What has also endeared him to United fans is his committed attitude on the pitch. He never gives up on the ball and despite his stature doesn’t shirk a combative environment.
He is unlucky enough to playing in the same era as Dani Alves and Maicon, two fine examples of the stereotypical Brazilian wing-back, which has limited his international appearances thus far in his career to a measly two caps. However, in his favour is his age; Maicon and Alves are entering the autumn of their careers while Rafael has yet to hit his prime.
If you consider the contenders for the Premier League this season – Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea – and compare their right-backs, few could argue that Rafael doesn’t deserve a large amount of recognition. Micah Richards has the athleticism, certainly, but has always given the impression of being a centre-half pushed out wide to fill a gap, much like the man-mountain, Branislav Ivanovic at Chelsea. In fact, Chelsea’s best right-back is the young Spaniard Cesar Azpilicueta who has unfortunately been overlooked somewhat at until recently. Tottenham have the fluctuating fortunes of Kyle Walker, Liverpool the declining talents of Glen Johnson, while out of the top six, only Arsenal can boast a genuinely top-class right-back in Bacary Sagna.
Still, the overall quality of defending in this year’s Premier League has been below average. Amongst the botched clearances, woeful back-passes, half-arsed tackles and a general inability to mark a man, there are a few glimmers of hope, Rafael being one amongst them. If he can secure a lengthy run of games in the side – until now he has never made more than 20 league appearances in a single season – then the signs suggest he will improve as a player. Great going forward: astute on the ball, a fair dribbler, and an eye for a cross; while aware at the back: a relentless nuisance, a good tackler and a burgeoning awareness of space, Rafael is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished right-backs currently operating in the English game.
Whether he can add his name to the distinguished list of great Brazilian wing-backs remains to be seen, but the Manchester United faithful would much rather he just help return some security to an uncharacteristically shaky defence and bring the Premier League crown back to its familiar dwelling, Old Trafford. Brazilians haven’t had a good rap at the Red Devils, but Rafael is certainly bringing a semblance of samba to the North West.