I was perusing through some Manchester United player statistics for this season and there was one player that caught my eye -- Rafael. Now obviously, numbers like Wayne Rooney's 28 goals in all competitions and Paul Scholes' 91.9% passing rate in league are quite impressive, but I didn't realize how statistically good Rafael's recent run of games have been. I'm a bit wary of football statistics -- especially for defenders -- because we haven't been able to create metrics from them that give us any sort of direct measure on how they contribute to goals scored or goals conceded (*). However, when you see that Scholes successfully completed 74 passes out of an attempted 76 (97.4% success rate) in a game, or that Antonio Valencia sent in an eye-popping 21 crosses, that hints strongly at the former dictating the match while the latter impressively got himself into position to continually supply our attackers in the box. Point being, they can still tell you something. For Rafael, it was 4.75 tackles per game in league that jumped out at me. That only piqued my curiosity and I began to examine his statistics some more.
(*) Think Sabermetrics for baseball. Clubs have hired people to do this and if this information is available, it's not readily to the public at this time.
It's been a difficult season for Rafael as shoulder surgery kept him out of action for the first few months of the season. During this time, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones -- both of whom were thought to be natural center-backs at season's beginning -- impressed at right-back and even Valencia showed some competence there when the injury situation became dire. As of late though, Rafael has been given a run of games and he's generally impressed. A look at the statistics from his 8 Premier League apperances -- all of which have occurred since new year's eve -- backs any notion that the Brazilian has been playing well as of late (**)
(**) My memory tends to be selective but Sweet science was kind enough to remind me of Rafa's horrendous failure to track Iker Muniain on Athletic Bilbao's third goal at Old Trafford. Perhaps next, Sweet science can bring up more pleasant memories such as when my first goldfish died or when I saw a puppy get hit by a car when I was a child.
Starting with tackles, a look at whoscored.com's database reveals that QPR's Alejandro Faurlin is the league leader with 4.50 tackles per game. However, because "only players with total appearances greater than the average number of appearances in Premier League are displayed," Rafael's 4.75 tackles per game in his 8 league appearances does not rank him at the top by their standards. However, this number provides a bit of insight by hinting just how good he's been in tackle. Now, this isn't earth-shattering news as the right-back is known to be brave and tough in tackle -- this merely supports that subjective opinion.
Rafael is only 5'8" so when he recently climbed higher than LOLiverpool's 6'4" Andy Carroll during an aerial duel, it provided a moment of amusement for nearly all (***). When examining the feisty right-back's aerial duel ability though, his 52.9% success rate hints at competency for a full-back. Going back a season, Rafa impressively won 61.3% of his aerial duel during the past league campaign.
(***) On a scale from 0-10, the unintentional comedy that LOLiverpool has provided this season rates about a 19.
On the negative side, Rafael's feistiness is also exhibited in his fouls. However, he's shown improvement in this as he's gone from 2.0 fouls per game in the 2009/10 league season, to 1.2 last season, and to 1.1 thus far this season. Improvement!
It is essential -- especially for a club like United that expects to compete at football's highest level each season -- for the modern full-back to provide more than just defending. In fact, their ability to bomb forward may hold just as much tactical importantance. Rafael provides this in spades. His tidy 88.6% pass completion percentage and 55.0 passes per game exhibits his ability to help United responsibly work the ball out of the back. His 3 assists in matches, 0.9 successful crosses at a 29.2% success rate, 1.1 successful dribbles per game, and 0.9 shots per game all exemplify his effectiveness when the Brazilian right-back surges forward into attack.
This is the fourth season for the 21-year-old at the club and during his time at Old Trafford, he's been largely been tipped as Gary Neville's successor. However, his continual injury woes have prevented him from featuring regularly and as a result, he's yet to stake his claim as United's clear first-choice right-back -- nor as the undoubted right-back of the future. Even after Neville's retirement in the middle of last season, the continual knocks he received prevented him from finding the necessary form to be United's first-choice at right-back for the run-in. It was either his twin brother, Fabio, or John O'Shea that were selected for all of United's big matches -- the former started the UEFA Champions League final versus FC Barcelona last May. After the departures of O'Shea and Wes Brown during the past summer, Rafa seemed to be the obvious first-choice at right-back. Once again, injury struck him and as previously mentioned, it was Smalling and Jones that admirably filled in.
Personally, I'm a massive believer in Rafael and I wholeheartedly believe that he has the physical ability and the mental toughness to be an outstanding right-back at Old Trafford for the next decade. When examining our squad, I believe he's the most obvious candidate as well. If Dani Alves' legs burn out prior to World Cup 2014 -- Maicon's have begun to already -- Rafa seems the most logical candidate to feature for Brazil when they host the world's grandest sporting competition. In the long-term -- or perhaps the medium-term -- the energetic defender just needs to stay healthy so that his obvious ability has the consistent opportunity to shine through. In the short-term, Rafa just needs to continue his recent run of good form for the run-in and help us win title number 20. If he can do that -- and of course stay relatively healthy -- this could be the spring of a fruitful career at United.