Rafael on the rise
Maturing is a term commonly associated with cheese and wine. From picking the grapes at the vineyard to putting the bottle on the supermarket shelf, the ageing process can take over twenty years for the finest wines to develop character. At the age of 22, Rafael da Silva is showing all the qualities of a 1990 Châteauneuf-du-Pape - tough and tannic in its youth while maintaining a rich spiciness with age.
The good news for Manchester United fans: Rafael is a player approaching his peak, combining a new found maturity and discipline with his trademark tenacity, bite and never-say-die attitude.
While United’s attack has been firing on all cylinders – they are the top scorers in the Premier League with 24 goals in nine games- their defence has endured a far from vintage start to the season, conceding more goals (14 in 10 games) than any other team in the top six.
For a backline boasting the experience and class of Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, who share 127 international caps between them, and the ever-improving Jonny Evans – the Northern Ireland captain- it is somewhat remarkable that it is Rafael who has taken the plaudits for providing stability to United’s defence.
His impressive start to the season has prompted praise from Sir Alex Ferguson, who believes the young Brazilian could emulate the career of former United legend Gary Neville.
“He’s been fantastic. He had the rashness, the impetuosity of a young boy. He’s a Brazilian, he loves the game, he trains like a beast, never misses training and is a football fanatic,” Ferguson said after United’s 2-1 victory over Arsenal.
“We were hoping somewhere along the line that maturity comes along and the rashness disappears and his form this season has been brilliant.
“He can develop the kind of career Gary had, definitely. Gary was not the finished article when he came into the team but he became a fantastic fullback – probably the best the club has ever had.
Rafael first made a name for himself in the 2005 Nike Premier Cup in Hong Kong, where he was spotted, along with his twin brother Fabio da Silva, by Manchester United scout Les Kershaw.
Kershaw immediately telephoned Ferguson, describing the pair as “two little whippets” who got straight back up again when they were knocked down.
The twins signed from Fluminense for an undisclosed fee in January 2008, but had to wait until that summer, when they turned 18, to play for United.
Having only made just over 100 appearances in five seasons, Rafael experienced an inconsistent and frustrating start to his Manchester United career.
His first season with the club was a promising one, making 28 appearances as an 18-year-old in his first year living in England, and receiving a nomination for the PFA Young Player of the Year award.
However, Rafael struggled in the seasons that followed, spending a sizeable amount of time on the sidelines with niggling injuries. When fit, his tendency to jump into tackles and get caught forward meant he failed to convince Ferguson he deserved a starting spot.
Rafael’s rash, impetuous nature and inexperience were encapsulated by his sending off in United’s Champions League quarter-final exit against Bayern Munich in 2010. This costly dismissal led many to speculate on whether the full back would ever curb his recklessness and develop into a reliable defender who United could count on.
Despite another erratic season in 2011-2012, a renewed sense of hope and expectation was placed on Rafael’s shoulders this summer, as he was awarded a new four year contract and given the number 2 jersey made iconic by Gary Neville.
Injuries to his challengers for the right back role, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, have given Rafael a run of games and he has taken full advantage of this opportunity, finally establishing himself as one of the first names on the team sheet. He has played all but one game so far this season, and proved to be one of United’s most consistent and productive performers.
Rafael has learnt when to stand off and contain an attacker, rather than flying into tackles every time and giving away needless fouls in dangerous positions. Furthermore, he has curbed his urge to go forward at every opportunity and will sit back when Patrice Evra attacks on the opposite flank. In the final third, he is ever improving and remarkably astute in the box for a defender, having already scored two goals this season including an extraordinary strike against Liverpool that Robin Van Persie would have been proud of.
While he has become an important figure at Manchester United, Rafael still has a long way to go to establish himself internationally. He has only played in two friendlies for Brazil’s senior squad, and will have to keep performing at his current level to dislodge Dani Alves. He represented Brazil at London 2012, where he was one of the team’s best players until the final, when a loose pass led to a goal for Mexico, who went on to win the match and the gold medal. Although the Brazilian Football Confederation singled him out for criticism, Rafael has already proved at an early age that he is not fazed by doubts or the odd mistake that he will inevitably make along the way.
Rafael is a rare breed of defender, one who at times acts like a composed centre forward, often as a secondary winger, and occasionally in such an impulsive and frantic manner, it is hard to believe that he has made United’s right back spot his own. Much like letting a wine breathe before enjoying it, Rafael is profiting from the consistent exposure to Premier League and Champions League football. He has all the makings of top quality player, a vintage, and one that should be savoured for many years to come.