Rafael da Silva is fast approaching his fourth season at Manchester United and it is clearly his most important.
Since joining the club in 2008, in a deal that included his twin Fabio, he has struggled to hold down a regular spot on the right side of the defence. There are many reasons for this which I will come to but the 2012-13 season can be seen as pivotal in the life of the charismatic youngster.
Rafael and Fabio were spotted by Les Kershaw at the 2005 Nike Premier Cup in Hong Kong. After reporting to Sir Alex Ferguson that the twins reminded him of “two little whippets”, he implored the Scot to make his move. With Arsenal hovering in the background, Old Trafford was decided as the most suitable venue to develop the careers of the young Brazilians who had yet to make a senior appearance for Fluminense. It was a major upheaval for them as they had been nurtured by the club since the age of eleven after being spotted playing football in the street.
Rafael made his league debut against Newcastle United at the start of the 2008-09 season but it was in the seemingly annual pre-season friendly against Ferguson junior at London Road, Peterborough that first brought the diminutive youngster to the attention of the United faithful. What I remember most vividly about that game was the sight of a player who played without fear. Bombing up and down the right flank in a typically Brazilian style drew inevitable but wildly premature comparisons to the likes of Cafu and Roberto Carlos.
Here was someone playing against opponents who were well versed in the rough and tumble of English lower league football but Rafael simply played in the only way he knew how as if he was back in his home town of Petropólis, just outside Rio de Janeiro. It whetted the appetite for the future but rational onlookers knew that patience would be important if such a talent was to rise to the surface.
It is a fact of life that young defenders will make mistakes and it was no different with Rafael. However, his youthful exuberance and sheer tenacity quickly made him a firm favourite among the United faithful who recognised a deep determination within him to learn and develop under the tutelage of a certain right back called Gary Neville. Here was a player who had made the best of limited ability to forge a career at the highest level spanning a couple of decades. Who better to learn the dark arts of being a defender in the Premier League from than the man who symbolised everything that it means to play for Manchester United? Something he shared with Red Nev was having to cope with being allegedly the lesser talented sibling. This was certainly true when the twins were growing up but recent seasons have seen Rafael edge ahead of his more injury prone brother.
Following the retirement of Neville, United are yet to have a settled, first choice right back with the likes of Brown, O’Shea, Jones, Smalling, Valencia and even brother Fabio amongst others have all auditioned for the role with none of them truly convincing the boss that they should have a long term future in that position. Looking through those names, none is a specialist right back with their versatility appealing to Ferguson who can shoe horn them into the side to give them experience or simply game time. With Rafael it is different. He is a right back and it is his specialist position.
Whilst 22 is still relatively young for a defender, you would hope to see some level of maturity developing by this time before the peak years arrive by the mid to late twenties. It has been a sharp learning curve for Rafael in the last four years. By nature he can be impetuous and hot headed which has often seen him fall foul of the officials and at its worst had a detrimental effect on the team. This was perhaps best demonstrated by his two yellow cards against Bayern Munich in April 2010 which ultimately saw United exit the Champions League at the Quarter Final stage. Already on a booking, the young Brazilian was harrying the wily Frenchman Ribery in the centre of the park before a lunge saw a theatrical tumble followed by acting that Gerard Depardieu would have proud of which led to the brandishing of a second yellow for the unfortunate da Silva. Despite the red card, Ferguson clearly saw this as another step in the development of the Brazilian as he praised his performance in shackling the dangerous Ribery for the most part during the home leg.
Another sending off that could have cost United was in January 2011 when Rafael was unluckily given his marching orders by the over officious Mike Dean at White Hart Lane that saw the youngster vent his anger towards the referee with some choice expletives that earned him a small fine and a trip to the FA to explain his conduct. Thankfully, such incidents have become rare ever since although the odd show of impetuosity can still rear its head from time to time such is his determination to win the ball and sheer will to win.
The return to fitness of Nemanja Vidic could be a massive help to Rafael’s chances of nailing down his specialist spot in the side. We all know that a consistent selection of the back four can only be a good thing and it was sadly lacking last year following the knee injury to our captain and to the various other defensive members of the squad.
A back five of De Gea, Rafael, Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra looks solid on paper and the leadership and experience that will return with Vidic’s recovery will be key in helping the understanding grow between these five as a unit. Ferguson loves to rotate as we all know but if those mentioned can stay fit then you would expect them to line up in many of the important games leaving the lesser league and cup games for the likes of Jones, Smalling and Evans etc.
If most observers would agree that Rafael’s impetuousness has abated over the last year or so, there are still some questions hanging over him in terms of his in-game concentration levels. The stand out moment from last season that emphasises this point emphatically is in the home Europa league tie against Athletic Bilbao when the day-dreaming Brazilian inexplicably allowed the silky young Spaniard Iker Muniain to drift in at the far post to seal United’s fate. To be fair to Rafael, such lapses have been rare but it is a lesson for him that he must keep alert for the full ninety minutes as defensive mistakes are often punished at the top level.
Rafael and Fabio or Fabio and Rafael?
It is also a big season for him as for the first time in his life, he will be living away from his twin Fabio who has joined QPR on a season long loan. While some would argue it should do him the world of good to have to cope on his own, twins have a unique bond that, when separated can lead to anxiety and other issues. I would view this temporary farewell as a chance for Rafael to grow as a man, something which marriage and the responsibility of fatherhood would already have done to him. His sense of stability should be further enhanced by the signing of a new four year deal at the club earlier this summer.
On the pitch, improvement also needs to come in the form of his attacking forays into opposition territory. He has proved a capable assistant to Valencia down the right flank on the overlap but he needs to add a Neville-like crossing ability to his repertoire as well as an ice cool composure when he finds himself in the box. Too often a well-timed, incisive run has been let down by a rushed or over ambitious cross when well-placed much to the irritation of his team mates.
From the evidence of his role for Brazil at the London Olympics, it appears this area of his game has improved. His crosses have certainly looked more measured and his composure was on display as he rifled home a left footed shot in one of the early group games to set the side on its way. However, the Olympic final showed that his concentration could still be an issue when he was caught out in the early stages as Mexico took the lead.
There is something about Rafael as a person that means you cannot help but love the guy. Whether it’s his determination on the field of play, his general all round joie de vivre or the fact that he appears to understand what it is to be a United player, it gives the impression that a lot of people are willing him to succeed.
Under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson he has an ally that will tolerate the odd rash rush of blood as long as with a mistake comes a deeper understanding of the role required. I, for one can only see a bright future for the talented Brazilian as long as he keeps his feet on the ground and realises there is no better finishing school in world football than what he has in front of him at Old Trafford.