Manchester United 2012-13 player review: Rafael da Silva

Alex Livesey

It's quite fitting that this was the season that Rafael was given the No.2 shirt.

The Busby Babe continues with the second installment of our 2012-13 Manchester United player reviews. Next up is right-back Rafael da Silva.

*20|13 player review: David de Gea

I'm going to be dividing each of the player reviews into three categories: 'what was expected' will be a brief and general explanation of what the expectations were for the player prior to the season's start, 'what we got' will typically be the section with the most depth as this will be the heart of the review, and 'what's next?' will be an examination of the player's future at United.

What was expected

Rafael da Silva, along with twin brother Fabio, was signed as a 17-year-old by United and he was brought to the club in the summer of 2008 as an 18-year-old. It didn't take him long to flash his potential.

During his debut season in England, the Brazilian right-back was shortlisted for the PFA young player of the year (which was won by Ashley Young when he was then at Aston Villa) and in the following three seasons, he had stretches of impressive performances. In the spring of 2010, in a quarter-final UEFA Champions League tie against Bayern Munich, Sir Alex Ferguson claimed that Rafael 'absolutely dominated Franck Ribery. However, the United right-back was sent off after two yellow cards in the second leg at Old Trafford. That pretty much is a microcosm of the his first four seasons at United: moments of brilliance mixed in with him missing out at times for various reasons such as injury, suspension, or a dip in form.

This past summer, Rafael was awarded a new four-year deal and he was given the No.2 shirt. The hope was that he could put it all together in his fifth year at United and give them a consistent and complete season as the first-choice right-back.

What we got

RAFAEL


GS (sub)


Avg P


PS %


KP


C


C%


DRB


TKL


INT


AD%


G


AST


Prem


27(1)


42.2


84.5%


0.9


0.6


24.7%


0.6


3.1


2.1


59.7%


3


3


CL


6(1)


43.6


88.9%


0.4


0.4


25.5%


0.6


1.9


1.3


60.0%


0


0


* GS: games started (substituted appearances), Avg P = average passes per game, PS% = passing accuracy percentage, KP = chances created per game, C = accurate crosses per game, C% = accurate cross percentage, DRB = successful dribbles per game, TKL = tackles per game, INT = interceptions per game, AD% = aerial duels won percentage, G = goals scored, AST = assists

Rafael provided United all that they could reasonably ask for this season. He had a shaky gold medal game in the Olympics last summer for Brazil and he was successfully targeted aerially by Southampton in an early-season match at St. Mary's. However, since then, he was superb and arguably the best right-back in England.

The Brazilian's general strengths are clear: he provides loads of energy and tenacity up and down the right touchline, he's passionate and not shy about getting stuck in, he's clearly eager and competitive, his technical ability and pace make him a threat when he joins the attack, and he has an impressive amount of experience at football's highest level for a 22-year-old.

Even though he's prone to being petulant -- his combative nature can be endearing, though -- he's become decreasingly so. Perhaps that maturity is expected, but it's not something to take for granted when it comes to footballers (e.g. Luis Suarez says hello). Rafael's (mostly) controlled aggression -- though he's likely to always be prone to picking up bookings -- is an asset for him.

Aerially, Rafael shows a willingness to battle but it's not a strength of his -- nor is it, necesarrily, a huge weakness. His 60%-ish aerial duel success rate in both league and in Europe suggests that he's adequate for a full-back, but he'll certainly never be a defender that moves centrally later in his career. United need to be careful in the future if teams target the right-back at the backpost on crosses like Southampton continually did with Rickie Lambert... or like new United manager David Moyes did in the spring of 2012 at Old Trafford with Nikica Jelavic.

In attack, Rafael's abiity to combine in tight spaces and in choosing the right runs to make makes him uniquely different than most attacking full-backs. For example, his willingness to go inside the opposing full-back -- particularly when Antonio Valencia hugs the touchline as the right-winger -- often causes confusion for the opposition and creates space either for himself or for another United attacker. When darting inside, Rafael is able to play quick 'one-two's' when necessary and he also appears to anticipate well when to make a late-arriving run (e.g. his wonderstrike at QPR was when he unpredictably arrived near the top of the box after goalkeeper Julio Cesar parried away a Robin van Persie cross/shot).

The Brazilian can also make the requisite overlapping runs that most attacking full-backs are often associated with. His 24.9% crossing accuracy rate in league hints at him being an adequate crosser, though that figure is dependent on a lot variables such as the targets for the crosses, the style of play for a team, etc. He can a bit inconsistent at times with his crosses from near the touchline because his out-swinging crosses sometimes lack enough velocity. His placement of these crosses, though, is generally good. He also does well to drill low dangerous and low crosses across the box when he gets to the byline.

Rafael's clear biggest weakness is his proneness to being caught out too high and thus, United can be vulnerable to counterattacks in these moments. In my opinion though, this can be an unfair criticism (or at least the harshness of it is) because what's asked from modern full-backs -- particularly attacking ones -- needs to be contextualized. With modern football no longer being divided into three lines for most teams (e.g. 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1, 4-1-2-3, etc rather than 4-4-2), it's not the box-to-box central-midfielders that are typically asked to guard the most vertical ground, it's often the maruading full-back. Rafael is certainly at fault sometimes for poor-positioning (not everyone is as awesome as Philipp Lahm), but it's almost an impossible ask for him not to be caught out at times. If United had a healthy and energetic Darren Fletcher to break up counterattacks in these situations (or Marouane Fellaini!), perhaps the full-backs wouldn't be as exposed.

Overall, it's been both a breakthrough and fantastic season for the United first-choice right-back. It's quite fitting that it's been this season when he was given the No.2 shirt. He's earned it.

What's next?

Moyes is fortunate to inherit such a talented and mature 22-year-old right-back. The former (-ish) Everton boss clearly enjoys attacking the flanks -- particularly with his full-backs as evidenced by the influence of Leighton Baines and to a lesser extent, Seamus Coleman -- and he will undoubtedbly seek to utilize the full talents of the marauding Brazilian. Rafael still needs to polish up certain parts of his game -- such as more consistent crossing and continual improvement in positioning -- but United have one of the best right-back assets at the moment in world football.

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