Manchester United: Is Rafael the Best Right-Back in the English Premier League?
Rafael Pereira da Silva is fast developing into one of English Premier League's best right-backs, but is he the cream of the crop or still falling just short of the mark?
Let's break down his style of play and assess what level he's currently at.
Defender or attacker?
As the full-back role moves closer and closer to the wing-back role, it's no surprise to see three-man defensive systems cropping up all over the world.
The right-back position has been gradually creeping toward a more attacking outlet for around five seasons now, and Rafael seems to have entered the professional footballing world at just the right time.
Look at some of the Brazilians EPL colleagues—Glen Johnson, Kyle Walker, Bacary Sagna and Maicon. Check the left side—Aleksandar Kolarov, Jose Enrique, Leighton Baines and Alexander Buttner.
Hardly defensive walls, are they? We're around 75 percent of the way through a steady transition to wing-backs galore and these guys can hardly wait.
Until that transition is complete, full-backs need to master both aspects of the game to be considered elite.
There's no doubting Rafael's attacking prowess.
His eagerness to get forward is unmatched in the EPL, using pace and acceleration to torch the touchline and get himself into positive positions.
He's definitely not afraid to put himself in range of a goalscoring opportunity either, making him a threat staying touchline-wide or cutting inside. In this respect, he's a little like Dani Alves—incredibly tough to defend against given his diverse set of skills and multi-directional play.
He's managed to grab two assists and two goals in the EPL so far this season, with his most critical yet coming from a low cross finished by Wayne Rooney in the local derby.
It is, however, arguable that the emergence of Rafael coincides directly with the fall of Antonio Valencia. The Ecuadorian winger has struggled so far this season and there are definite issues with the two when it comes to teamwork.
Rafael's unpredictability often leaves Valencia unsure of where to go. The full-back also has a tendency to bomb forward when it's perhaps not wise too, leaving Michael Carrick burdened to cover and Valencia isolated in an advanced, yet useless, position.
As brilliant as he is going forward, we're not quite seeing wing-backs yet at Old Trafford, meaning the Brazilian needs to put in a better shift at the other end of the pitch.
He's averaging 3.2 tackles and 2.1 interceptions per game, which is solid, but the statistics don't tell the whole story.
His gung-ho nature sometimes sees him travel forward when he shouldn't, and being hauled off after 30 minutes at the Madejski Stadium proved Sir Alex Ferguson doesn't fully trust him yet.
It's harsh to chastise Rafael because he's still only 22 years of age.
He's showing devastating offensive skills already, and the changing nature of the game may mean he never has to sharpen his defensive game.
If he does, rest assured Sir Alex Ferguson will coach him into a well-rounded player. Is there anyone in the EPL who possesses all of this already?
It's a tough call. Cesar Azpilicueta looks like he could have everything, but he's got a lot to prove having just come into the league. Branislav Ivanovic is ideal defensively, but stunted offensively.
The very fact that it's hard to find players like Philipp Lahm, who've mastered both ends of the pitch, suggest Rafael is close to becoming a very special little player.
He's not there yet, but in two years United fans will have genuine reason to boast.
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