Rafael da Silva recently turned 22 – and yet many feel they’ve already seen enough; believing that even at that young age, Rafael will never be able to become the established right-back Manchester United has been looking out for since Gary Neville’s legs turned into gelato one fine morning.
Ideally, all managers would love to have defensively astute full-backs but Sir Alex seems to want to go further than some – looking mainly for players who can add discipline but might then also possess the attributes to become a competent full-back. Currently, it’s Smalling and Jones; before that, Wes Brown. John O’Shea had his standout season in 2003/04 in central defence, deputising for the suspended Rio Ferdinand but that was short-lived; he soon reverted back to the role he had in the campaign before that one, where he would play primarily on the right or left of defence for the remainder of his United career. Even Gerard Pique experienced something similar once. He would say later: “I got drafted in at right-back for a game against West Ham. Fortunately, I did okay.”
Standing in Rafael’s way are these modified defenders. United, right now, have better centre-halves and so Smalling and Jones have to look elsewhere; that yet-to-be-claimed right-back position is for anyone who wants it most.
If last season is an indicator, Sir Alex could probably be most ruthless to Rafael. As it reached its climax, Rafael, playing well up to that point, was dropped in favour of Phil Jones for the must-win game against Manchester City which United lost 1-0.
But 2012/2013 could well be Rafael’s year. He’s without half a brain, though; twin brother Fabio has been loaned out to QPR, but his situation could lead him to think positively; around the time last week where the Fabio news was revealed, it was also said that Rafael has signed a new four year deal, which will keep him at United until 2016. The difference in fortunes is telling. The talent is clearly there – why else would United give him such a contract?
He has his problems. Tackling, for one. He lacks positional discipline and sometimes appears to be well over his sugar intake. Still, his crossing ability is as good as Neville’s was, his running with the ball is fine and he complements Antonio Valencia well. The Ecuadorian likes a partner similar to himself – when United played Wolves in March 2012, both were troubling and exerted all their offensive abilities in tandem, helping the side win 5-0. They would do the same against Aston Villa (4-0) a month later. Towards the end of this season, it did look to be swinging Rafael’s way – possibly good news for the new season.
And finally, Rafael may well see a fine-tuning of ability with age; which is something the Brazilians predict – he could represent his country in World Cup 2014, hosted by Brazil. He’s been selected a few times now for the seniors, playing in the Olympics at this very moment.
What might be thought to hinder him – the presence of Smalling and Jones – might well help him. They’re not established yet either. And when you look at the player best equipped to play in that position, it is surely Rafael of the three because he is more a threat going forward – while the others are perhaps short term. A string of good performances might see the start of something good for Rafael – if, crucially, he sorts out his defensive game.
Published with permission from Red Army - Manchester United News.