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Why Rafael Is Manchester United's Most Improved Player This Season

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 23:  Rafael of Manchester United celebrates scoring the first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Queens Park Rangers and Manchester United at Loftus Road on February 23, 2013 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Ian Walton/Getty Images
Sam PilgerFeatured Columnist IIINovember 20, 2016

During the summer of 2011, I sat down to interview Manchester United’s Brazilian Da Silva twins, Fabio and Rafael.

It was for one of the first joint interviews they had given in English; both were polite and a little shy, but while Fabio, the youngest by two minutes, wore a contented smile, the normally more extroverted Rafael was quiet and withdrawn.

At the time, Fabio was the twin in the ascendancy. By the climax of the 2010-11 season, he had edged ahead of his brother to become the first choice right-back at Old Trafford, helping United claim a record 19th English title and being entrusted by Sir Alex Ferguson to start the Champions League final against Barcelona.

When I asked them about how United had dealt with losing so resoundingly on that night at Wembley, Rafael’s frustration was clear—he shrugged and replied mournfully, “Of course I did not play so while I was pleased for my brother, it was also difficult for me.”

Fabio has since admitted his brother had been “destroyed” by his omission from the Champions League final, but now, 18 months later, the twins’ fortunes have been reversed. 

After all the expectation and patience extended to him, Rafael has finally made the right-back position his own this season—he has emerged as the talent Sir Alex Ferguson always knew he could become after first being alerted to him, and his twin, eight years earlier. 

This season, aside from Robin van Persie, Rafael has been Manchester United’s most consistent performer, offering a constantly energetic presence on the right, making penetrating runs and contributing three goals so far—most importantly, very few wingers get the better of him these days. He is now a proper defender.

Meanwhile, Fabio has endured a frustrating loan spell at Queens Park Rangers this season, suffering injuries, a change of manager and being forced into a season-long relegation battle.

It was Rafael’s brilliant strike, a candidate for Premier League goal of the season, against QPR this weekend that earned him a rare mention in the headlines—but he’s always been capable of scoring spectacular goals, and, arguably, his volley against Arsenal at the Emirates in November 2008 was even better.

After making his debut in August 2008, it was immediately clear that Rafael had genuine talent, especially going forward—but in his early performances, he was also positionally naïve and too impetuous. He could be a liability in defence by diving into too many rash tackles.

This would cost United in the quarter-finals of the 2010 Champions League. Rafael was sent off in the second leg against Bayern Munich for two avoidable yellow cards, forcing United to play for half of the game with ten men, losing their momentum and ultimately losing the tie on away goals after a late strike from Arjen Robben.

Rafael has recalled Ferguson’s reaction to his sending off: "He was angry but it was more a paternal dressing-down than anything at full blast. It actually made me feel more ashamed than if he had screamed. But he always talks to us about taking time to learn with our mistakes and not being too anxious." 

Ferguson's approach has paid off, and since that night Rafael has grown up.  He now combines his instinctive attacking flair with a calmer and more controlled approach to defending; his tackling is more considered, and his decision-making more mature.

“The truly eye-catching improvement this season so far for me is the maturity that young Rafa has added to his game," the United manager has said.

"I would have no hesitation saying that he is our most improved player this season with a couple of goals a reflection of his eagerness to lend a hand up front."

How do you keep Gareth Bale quiet? Ask Rafael. While most of the Premier League has struggled this season, amid the snow flurries at White Hart Lane in United’s 1-1 draw with Tottenham last month, the Brazilian calmly and effectively limited Bale’s influence.

Still only 22 years old, he is not yet the finished article—witness the torrid time his former teammate Cristiano Ronaldo gave him in the first half of United’s Champions League tie against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu two weeks ago.

In mitigation, the Portuguese phenomenon does that to most defenders in most games—in the second half, Rafael regained his composure and gave a greatly improved account of himself.

As this weekend proved, goals always garner the most attention, so it is highly likely it will be Robin van Persie cradling the statue of Sir Matt Busby as Manchester United’s Player of the Year in May.

And though Rafael won’t have any personal trophy like this to display at home, this season will long be remembered as the one when he truly began to fulfill his vast potential. 

@sampilger 

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