Rafael da Silva, the best of the second bests
If it has been established that the ‘second best bed’ for Anne Hathaway (the other one) was not an insult nor an example of a fractious relationship, then surely we’ve got it all wrong. ‘Second best’ is a good thing — or, at least, it should be. Certainly, being second best at Manchester United is. Robin van Persie has been so good this season that he is the outstanding candidate for all of the awards; and so good that, in imagining a ranking, those that follow him in second, third, fourth would not feel inclined to be aggrieved by his superior position.
Who, then, would place second? Tom Cleverley perhaps; but, right now, it’s only been satisfactory going on good going on very good. There hasn’t been a distinguishable level of performances and, as if it hasn’t been said already, United must persevere in being patient — not that it’s necessarily a bad thing. Just look at Rafael da Silva.
Now, football, as a a general rule, is too slippery and erratic to form premature opinions: when Manchester United started 2011/12 beating all of Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Chelsea, scoring three, eight and three goals respectively, few stopped short in hailing a return to the attacking football the club had practically deserted the year before, and foresaw a dominance that season that would never really materialise. In September, with Arsenal the only of the 92 league teams to have not conceded, Amy Lawrence of The Guardian wrote that Steve Bould’s presence in the dugout has “had a remarkable effect on Arsenal’s approach to defending,” which not only made sense at the time, but was such a widely-held view that it is unfair to make an example out of that particular one. Still — swiftly moving on — this could be Rafael’s season. Or not. No, it definitely could be. Maybe.
Resisting the late charges of Javier Hernandez, Wayne Rooney and the renascent Patrice Evra, Rafael places second in the Imaginary But Definitely Important Rankings. But it is worth wondering how many others see that to be the case; Carl Jenkinson was preferred to Rafael when a couple of BBC pundits — the best of the judges — sat down to devise a Team of the Season So Far. It isn’t so much a case of Jenkinson not deserving it all, but Rafael perhaps deserving it more. Thankfully, this is easy to shrug off; this was just one instance, after all, and an instance in which the alternative view isn’t one exclusive to Robbie Savage: Jenkinson has been good enough to be in contention. The problem here is not what’s not been said in the present, but what has in the past and what might in the future. It would be predictable of badly behaved football to change its tune and for Rafael’s form to taper; but, in imaging some twisted sort of football utopia, where things reassuringly remain the same, what would be said of him then at season’s end? (Hint! Say good things!)
Rafael is a full-back and he’s Brazilian. Godspeed. He may never truly be appreciated in this regard because the notion of an accomplished, flawless Brazilian full-back is almost an impossibility; as if this is limited to just Brazil. It is true that there is an extra emphasis on what could be offered going forward, the reason, according to Brazil-based Tim Vickery, why Rafael and his twin brother Fabio left for Manchester United so early in their careers. “Taking them across the Atlantic before they had ever played a senior game for Fluminense followed a simple logic — left in Brazil, it wasn’t likely they’d have much chance to refine the defensive side of their game,” Vickery wrote. But not everyone has fallen into the trap. Indeed, the two prime examples are among their greats: Roberto Carlos and Cafu. The two were so good in going forward that it was assumed that their weakness was in defending: but, at the risk of sounding revisionist, it only compared unfavourably. Carlos, impressively enough, was twice UEFA’s Defender of the Year.
The world, however, dislikes full-backs just as much as they do goalkeepers, because so many of them cannot find a balance between defence and attack … well, obviously. The full-back is, in general terms, the only player tasked with two jobs. And that’s never going to end well.
Rafael, though, after four years of enthusiastic bouncing around ‘There’ and ‘Not Quite There’, has finally made firm his place in the starting eleven. He has even been able to show up others; while Nani and Antonio Valencia have been floundering, Rafael continues to respond to situations such that he’s a part of the United attack that has played so well this season, and for whom most credit goes to for the club’s league position. Against Aston Villa, he was refreshingly insistent and was rewarded when his cross had set up the second. The hotheaded Rafael is still there, but is often suppressed, and with an improved head, sees his defensive game, his tackling, his willingness to compete and get at the other player, go up a level.
“Maybe he had rashness and the impetuosity of a young boy but somewhere along the line that maturity comes along and the rashness disappears,” said Sir Alex, suggesting that Rafael could emulate Gary Neville. “His form this season has been brilliant.”
Injuries elsewhere have helped and, forced away from tinkering, Sir Alex Ferguson has managed to get the best out of the right-back, his self-belief burgeoned. He has played regularly, often twice in a week, and has not yet suffered from burnout or a loss of form — not to jinx it, but the lack of any of that so far is a sign of wonderful progress. Of course, fitness will always be a worry; as are all the things that have happened before.
But to find evidence of actual progress, you can point to Arsenal’s Andre Santos — if you’re not doing that already. A decent left-back until now, once on par with team-mate Kieran Gibbs, Santos is now apparently miserable and hopeless. In Rafael and in Santos, you have players of contrasting fortunes. One has been exceptional, the other an exception. If that makes sense. For a full-back, a bad case of defending is usually shown as not being there at all, an exploited space. That problem is barely ever their problem; a team should be able to cover. What Santos has done wrong, not Rafael, is his inability to do something when posed against it. Match of the Day, though admittedly not at the forefront of football analysis, showed several examples of Santos’ failure to deal with the opposition threat at Old Trafford a fortnight ago, where he would show reluctance in doing anything about it. He would let play as well as an out-of-form Antonio Valencia to bypass him. What constitutes a bad full-back, or one out of form, or one learning, is surely one that makes the same mistake over and over. Rafael has not done that. Not this season, anyway.