It might still be early in the season, but Rafael’s contribution to Manchester United this season so far has not gone unnoticed.
In his four appearances this season, he has scored a goal in every other game: a statistic more readily associated with a striker. Perhaps it’s not just the goals, but the manner and importance of the goals, that’s got me putting him in the spotlight this week.
Against Fulham, he scored what turned out to be the match-winning goal by showing tenacity to nod home Ashley Young’s chip to the far post. He also had a goal (correctly) ruled out for offside earlier in the game.
Then last week against Liverpool, he scored an exquisite equalizer by curling an effort past Jose Reina into the far post. The goal came out of the blue, United having conceded a few minutes before, and they had not looked likely to score during the game up to that point. Rafael showed amazing technique and composure to bring United level, inspiring the team to go on and win the game.
We should also note that the only game United have lost this season (against Everton on the opening day) was a match in which Rafael did not feature.
While his goals alone are worthy of our attention, let us take a look at his overall contribution so far this season in order to determine just how well he has performed. As a means of comparison, I will compare Rafael’s statistics to pacesetting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic and defending champions Manchester City’s Pablo Zabaleta.
Statistical Comparison Between Rafael, Ivanovic, and Zabaleta
In terms of defense, Rafael has the highest number of ground 50-50s, with 50 challenges, while Ivanovic has the least, with only 28 challenges, despite playing one game more than both Rafael and Zabaleta.
Rafael seems to be the weakest at aerial balls with only 10 aerial 50-50s, winning only 60% of these challenges, compared to Ivanovic’s 18 aerial 50-50s, of which he has won 67% of them. We can most probably attribute this to Rafael’s lack of height. However, Rafael, like Zabaleta, has made 21 tackles in 4 matches: a far superior number to Ivanovic’s 10 tackles in 5 matches.
In terms of successful dribbles, Rafael comes out on top. He has made 8 successful dribbles, twice the number of Ivanovic (4) and four times that of Zabaleta (2). Still, Rafael, like Ivanovic, has lost the ball 6 times already this season. This is one of the biggest criticisms of Rafael, as he can be prone to carelessness in possession. Zabaleta, on the other hand, has yet to lose possession at all this season, showing his reliability as a defender.
With regards to passing and attacking, Rafael’s statistics seem to be generally superior. He has the highest percentage of pass completion (85.12% compared to Zabaleta’s 82.46% and Ivanovic’s 78.78%), the highest number of accurate open play passes (173 compared to Zabaleta’s 166 passes and Ivanovic’s 172 passes), and the percentage of accurate open-play passes (89% compared to Zabaleta’s 86% and Ivanovic’s 83%).
In addition, he has made 5 successful dribbles, the highest number amongst the three player. Strangely, considering Ivanovic’s attacking style of play, he has yet to register even one successful dribble. The potency of Rafael’s attacking play is further reinforced when we see that he has created more chances than Ivanovic and Zabaleta (he created 4 chances in 359 minutes as compared to Ivanovic, who similarly created 4 chances but in 450 minutes). While he lags behind Ivanovic in terms of crossing, both of players have equal statistics in front of goal, with 2 goals in 5 shots. The table clearly shows that in terms of attacking, Rafael just about edges Ivanovic, while Zabaleta is the weaker attacker.
Rafael’s Chance to Cement his Place at Right Back
Based on the statistics above, we can see that Zabaleta’s strength comes from his defensive ability, whereas Rafael and Ivanovic rely on their offensive prowess to beef up attacking options for their respective teams. For Rafael, this is probably something that we might already be familiar with. The statistics though, have shown that the attacking part of his game is on a par with, or even superior to, other top right-back players in the Premier League, most notably in terms of passing rate, successful dribbles, chances created and goals scored.
While Rafael’s attacking play can leave us breathless at times, his defensive play can leave us exasperated. A look at his statistics show that his weakest defensive areas are in challenging for aerial balls and in losing possession. This seems to have been a problem last season, too, when in 12 games he won only 50% of his aerial 50-50s and gave away possession 11 times (almost once every game).
Let’s not forget also that Rafael’s playing style and stature makes him prone to injuries which, last season, limited him to only 12 games in the Premier League last season, 2 of which came from the substitute’s bench.
With long-term injuries to Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, there is no better time for Rafael to cement his place as United’s first-choice right back. However, this situation also means that he cannot afford to get injured, as United have no other recognized players to fill in at right back (unless you consider Valencia, of course).
Nevertheless, the signs are there for Rafael to become a successful right back. Blessed with a Brazilian’s attacking instinct, as long as he keeps focused and improves the specifics of his defensive duties (finding a way to deal with aerial balls coming and not lose possession as readily), I see no reason why Rafael cannot be as good, or even better than Gary Neville once was.