Rafael celebrates his goal against Liverpool at Anfield
A young Brazilian kid looking not a day older than his 18 years-old receives the ball from a deflection just inside the Arsenal penalty area. He calmly cushions the ball on his chest, and with a swing of his left foot, pulls a goal back for the Red Devils.
That was almost four years ago. The day Rafael Da Silva made his first impression as a Manchester United player.
Rafael had come on for club captain, Gary Neville after 63 minutes.
In the half hour he got, he showed all the traits that United fans would associate with him over the next four years. He was full of running, was good on the ball, liked a tackle and loved to attack, attack, attack (just like one of the United chants says).
Nearly four years from that day, Rafael seems to have finally established himself as the club's first-choice right-back. His appearance from start to finish in the weekend's game against Arsenal was his 13th for Manchester United this season—more than any other player in the United squad.
Praise from the Manager
After the game against Arsenal, Rafael got the ultimate seal of approval from Sir Alex Ferguson, who insisted Rafael could emulate Gary Neville—arguably the club's greatest right-back post-Munich. This is what Ferguson had to say about Rafael (quotes via manutd.com):
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"Maybe he had rashness and the impetuosity of a young boy but somewhere along the line that maturity comes along and the rashness disappears. His form this season has been brilliant and the boy is really tough now...There's no doubt about that [whether Rafael could go on to enjoy a career similar to Gary Neville's]. Rafael is definitely the more naturally talented."
High praise indeed!
But there is mounting evidence to indicate that Ferguson firmly believes his own words.
The game against Arsenal was Rafael's third appearance in seven days. Last Sunday, he played 90 minutes in the 3-2 win against Chelsea. Then came 120 minutes in the League Cup defeat to the same opponents. The 90 minutes against Arsenal followed soon after.
Concerns during Development
Rafael's current run in the team and his form has been a revelation. Previously, every one at the club was aware of his ability and potential. But there were concerns about his tendency to get injured.
Additionally, there were concerns about his tendency for tackles resulting in costly bookings and sending offs. Never was this recklessness more apparent than in the Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich in 2010.
Rafael got himself sent off in the 50th minute of a match United were dominating and winning. The disadvantage in numbers proved too much for United as they conceded a late goal and were knocked out from the tournament by the German Club.
This season though, Rafael has shown none of the impetuousness of the past. His statistics also bear out the impressive improvement in his game.
In 12 appearances for United this season in the League and the Champions League, Rafael has scored 2 goals and made 1 assist (the all-important winner against Chelsea).
He has also averaged 59.4 passes per game at a pass completion rate of 90.1% (all statistics courtesy whoscored.com).
Defensively, he averages 2.4 tackles and 1.7 interceptions a game in the same 12 appearances.
His understanding of what is required is also highlighted by the fact that he makes 3.4 tackles a game in the Premier League as against 1.3 tackles a game in the Champions League.
This indicates Rafael's appreciation of the environment of each game.
With European referees being less tolerant of strong challenges, it is obvious he has cut down on that part of his game to prevent a repeat of the situation against Bayern Munich.
His card tally has also gone down. He hasn't been booked or sent off yet in the current season.
For a player who accrued 18 yellow cards and 2 red cards in 90 appearances for United before this season, this statistic makes for impressive reading indeed.
Consistency and Maturity: The Two Keywords
The fans appreciation of Rafael's newly found consistency and maturity was clear when they voted him United's Player of the Month for September ahead of the likes of Paul Scholes and Robin van Persie.
At a time when the club has been struggling with defensive replacements (especially at centre-back), Rafael's consistent form has been a source of strength for the manager.
In addition, his understanding with both Antonio Valencia and Nani has been invaluable in creating some of United's best attacking chances during games.
Right now, barring injury, Rafael is surely the club's first-choice right-back.
Another advantage to this fact is that it leaves Chris Smalling and Phil Jones to contest for what surely is their strongest position in the team (i.e. at centre-back) when both of them return from injury.
For Rafael though, it is just a matter of continuing to show the maturity and consistency he has shown so far this season.
If he keeps doing that, there is every chance he will end up developing into one of the world's best right-backs.