Fabio or Rafael for Manchester United? | Stats Analysis

Fabio or Rafael for Manchester United? | Stats Analysis

Fabio and Rafael

 

Having been brought in by ex-Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson in the 2008 January transfer window, Brazilian twins Rafael and Fabio Da Silva were seen as the future of United’s full-back positions. With left-back Patrice Evra lacking a deputy and Gary Neville ageing on the opposite flank (Neville, of course, being part of another of United’s family full-back tandems with his brother Phil), Ferguson swooped to bring in the highly-rated pair to provide long-term stability for the defence.

Over the next few years, the pair flourished. Although Fabio was perhaps seen as the better one of the pair back in Brazil, Rafael found his feet quicker in England and got numerous opportunities at right-back as Neville first dropped to backup and then retired altogether. The more versatile Fabio was kept out of the team by Patrice Evra’s quality at left-back, but Ferguson selected him at right-back for the Champions League final in 2011.

Coming into the 2012-13 season, Rafael was United’s established first-choice right-back after an excellent 2011-2012. Fabio, however, had a problem: Ferguson had brought in Dutchman Alexander Buttner to provide competition on the left, and with Rafael incumbent on the right and supported by capable deputies Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, starting opportunities would be hard to come by. His manager solved this conundrum by loaning him out to Q.P.R., who had survived the previous season by the skin of their teeth and were looking to consolidate their position through heavy investment.

Neither Fabio nor his manager could’ve quite foreseen the dismal campaign that Q.P.R. suffered, but in the maelstrom of a relegation dogfight the young Brazilian acquitted himself well, despite the chaotic defence he found himself in. Meanwhile, his brother was coming on in leaps and bounds, establishing himself as one of the finest full-backs in the Premier League. Now, looking ahead to the 2013-14 season, the returning Fabio will again have to battle for his place. With Evra hitting good form again on the left, Fabio may find himself competing with his brother for United’s right-back berth. With the scene set, the question rather presents itself. Which Da Silva twin, Fabio or Rafael, deserves the starting spot?

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Defence

Fabio and Rafael Defending

On the ground and in the air, the twins are pretty similar. Fabio has a marginally higher ground 50-50 win %, whilst they’re perfectly tied in aerial 50-50 win %. In terms of actual tackle success, however, Fabio is over 6% ahead, somewhat surprisingly. Moreover, although he’s come up with fewer interceptions, if we adjust the figures for minutes played he again beats out Rafael soundly. It’s not all doom and gloom for Rafael, though, given that his minutes per defensive error are far lower.

In terms of possession and protection of the ball, Rafael was surprisingly poor compared to his brother. He lost possession 30 times, far higher than Fabio’s 11 even when adjusted for minutes played. On the other side of the ball, the brothers posted identical minutes per possession won stats, but Rafael was blown out of the water by Fabio’s excellent awareness when on the ball. Even if you double Fabio’s total dispossessions to roughly match the twins’ minutes played, it’s still half that of Rafael’s. This is perhaps the most surprising stat here, since one would expect Fabio to be under more pressure and offered less support from his teammates when on the ball, but he comes out on top by a huge margin.

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Attack

Fabio and Rafael Attacking

Both Fabio and Rafael are modern, offensive full-backs, expected to contribute at both ends of the pitch. It is here where stats become perhaps a little more cloudy, since the massively contrasting fates of the two teams involved come into play much more in this category. Better teams generally have more possession over the course of the season, giving them much more time to adjust their shape and get their full-backs forward. It’s not just a case of controlling the ball, either, but also of different mentalities. Better teams are more likely to be more offensive and proactive in their approach to attacking, which involves getting more players higher up the field. Full-backs and their positioning, in particular, are often an excellent way of telling how offensive a team is trying to be.

With that in mind, such statistics as open play pass completion lose something of their effect. Rafael’s was always likely to be higher than Fabio’s purely because United get the lion’s share of possession so much more often than Q.P.R, and thus are likely to get their entire team more passes. Moreover, the passes a team with more possession do play are often more focused towards retention rather than attack, as United could recycle the ball and wait for an opening. Compare that to Q.P.R, who had to use their limited opportunities to attack when they could, and it’s no surprise Rafael has Fabio beat in terms of pure pass completion. Incidentally, a few figures not shown here rather reinforce this argument: Rafael’s forward pass percentage was lower (36%) than the percentage of his passes which went left (44%). Compare to that Fabio (42% sideways passes overall, with 48% forward) and the difference is clear.

In terms of dribbling, the two are still relatively well matched. Fabio’s 10 successful dribbles out of 15 attempted are similar to Rafael’s figures of 18 from 30 when adjusted for minutes played. Rafael has an edge in terms of crossing, posting a 5% higher crossing accuracy than his brother, but really comes into his own in terms of assists and chances created. He has three assists to Fabio’s none, and even when adjusted for minutes played, the amount of chances Rafael created was far higher. This trend continues in regards to clear-cut chances – as in, chances that can be reasonably be expected to go in – with seven to Fabio’s two. Again, even when adjusted for minutes played, Rafael’s figures are better. As mentioned at the start of this section, though, it was undoubtedly easier for Rafael to create in a side as dominant as United’s.

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Rafael or Fabio?

It’s hardly surprising that, given the obvious similarities between the pair, they’re quite difficult to separate on the football pitch. When looking at it from the viewpoint of pure stats, Fabio perhaps holds a slight edge defensively, being a slightly better tackler but more importantly losing the ball a lot less. On the other hand, again in terms of pure statistical comparison, Rafael takes the attack category handily. From this position, overall you’d have to say Rafael wins out.

However, this is one of the times when the stats blinkers have to come off in order to fully understand the data before you. When taking into account the previously discussed discrepancy in team quality, things begin to look a little different. Critically, Fabio’s defensive and attacking statistics begin to look a lot more impressive, given the lack of quality around him. This makes the decision a great deal harder than it would first seem.

One of the most useful ways of analysing these stats without having to add asterisks and take into account the vast gulf in team quality is to look for the outliers, the data that defies said gap in quality. And from this collection of stats, the only outliers in there are in favour of Fabio. All of the attacking stats where Rafael dominates are fully expected, and you’d logically expect this dominance to continue into defence, where United were a far stronger outfit than the haphazard Q.P.R. But Fabio only lost in one defensive category, the admittedly important minutes per defensive error parameter. Everywhere else, he soundly beat his brother. Most impressive were probably the stats that sealed the contest in my eyes; his brilliant possession statistics, on both sides of the ball. Fabio intercepted more, lost possession less and was dispossessed far less per minute than Rafael, all statistics that theoretically shouldn’t be in his favour.

There’s still much to recommend Rafael – his familiarity with his teammates, his good partnership with the wingers (whoever they may be) in front of him, as well as the dubious honour of being unable to play anywhere else, unlike his brother – but overall, Fabio’s performance in a difficult season gives him the performance edge. Whether or not David Moyes will give both a chance and work on a ‘minutes for merit’ basis remains to be seen, but with each impressive performance both twins turn in, it must be becoming more and more tempting for the Scot to dispose of the ageing and occasionally error-prone Evra and put a Da Silva on each flank…

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