Twelve months ago, Manchester United fullback Rafael da Silva faced a barrage of questions regarding his future at Old Trafford. Today, following an impeccable start to the 2012/13 season, the Brazilian has begun to answer those critics in his own typically flamboyant style.
The burgeoning right-back has started 16 of the Reds’ 18 matches in all competitions this campaign, scoring twice whilst earning considerable acclaim from his teammates, manager Sir Alex Ferguson and several respected pundits.
Rafael’s performances have even warranted some, including Ferguson, to compare the 22-year-old to United legend Gary Neville, who made over 600 appearances during a distinguished and trophy laden 19-season career at the Theatre of Dreams.
When asked whether his current right-back could match the achievements of Neville, Sir Alex was clear in his assessment (via ManUtd.com).
“Definitely, there's no doubt about that... It did take time for Gary in terms of his use of the ball and crossing but all these things developed because he wanted to work on them. Rafael is definitely the more naturally talented. Gary came to us as a centre-back, don't forget.”
Part of the Rafael’s ascendancy to first choice right-back can be attributed to his newfound consistency. Incredibly, this season is the Brazilian’s fifth among United’s first-team squad and already, he is just six Premier League appearances shy of a campaign best.
A right-wing partnership with Ecuadorian powerhouse Antonio Valencia has also bred a familiarity and understanding that is reminiscent of Neville and David Beckham in their primes, tormenting opponents with unwavering levels of self-belief and attacking endeavour.
“My friendship with Antonio Valencia is good.," Rafael told ManUtd.com. "He plays well in every position and it's good to watch him and learn something that you're not doing. Being the number one right-back at this club is important to me.”
More importantly, the foundation which Rafael’s blueprint for success is drawn upon consists of patience and maturity. Football can be a fickle business at the best of times and the modern supporter, armed by social networking, is too judgemental and quick to dismiss a player.
At Old Trafford in 2010, United’s Petrópolis-born star was lambasted and criticized following a now infamous sending off as the Reds exited the UEFA Champions League at the hands of Bayern Munich via the away-goals rule. At the time, Rafael was just 19 years old.
A season later, Rafael was again dismissed, this time for a second bookable offence during a Premier League stalemate against Tottenham Hotspurs at White Hart Lane. This time he was 20 years old, and grumbles regarding his quality and potential continued to sound.
Of course, questions were rightly asked of his temperament, but in the cold light of day, a young defender’s willingness to impress and commit to a cause should not be handicapped—it should be encouraged and controlled. In short, having too much fight is hardly a problem.
Now, under the right supervision and with a heightened sense of responsibility, Rafael is flourishing under the intense spotlight that shines on United, and so far, he has made a mockery of those who had written him off.