Earlier this season, Sir Alex Ferguson hailed Rafael as Manchester United's most improved player of the season (via the official club website): "The truly eye-catching improvement this season so far for me is the maturity that young Rafa has added to his game," he said.
The Brazilian has been a regular fixture at right-back for the Red Devils, claiming the position as his own following several campaigns spent in rotation.
He has looked a far more composed, intelligent footballer down the right flank, having more of an influence in attack.
In defence, his improvement has been most notable in his awareness and ability to shackle even the most dangerous of opponents.
In assessing his development, one can look at the great wealth of statistics to affirm these observations.
With a little help from EPLIndex.com, here is a look at Rafael's season by the numbers, and what they tell us about his play.
Looking at Rafael's defensive statistics this season compared to his debut campaign in 2008/09, there is a marked progression.
Perhaps his biggest area of improvement has been in his aerial ability, one that many people previously pegged as a significant weakness of his.
In 2008/09 he committed to only 16 aerial duels in 16 Premier League appearances, winning half of them.
This term he has fought 48 aerial duels at an average of 2.2 per game, winning 27.
He has made 43 total interceptions at almost two per game. Only Nemanja Vidic and Michael Carrick have a better average in this category.
Perhaps the most intriguing statistic is in comparing the average number of tackles he made per game in the 2008/09 season and during this current campaign.
In his debut term for the Red Devils, Rafael attempted 3.6 tackles per game, whereas this season he has only attempted 3.3.
At first glance, this drop would seem to have negative connotations for the right-back, but the opposite is true.
He has been far more restrained in his defending, diving into fewer tackles and staying on his feet where possible.
Sir Alex himself claimed that great decision-making has not typically been one of his strong suits, but that such a weakness has now been ironed out (via the official club website).
More telling is the fact Rafa has conceded only 1.3 fouls per game this season, compared with 2.0 in 2008/09.
Rafael has also had a far greater influence in attack for the Red Devils, both in creating and scoring goals himself.
The latter was a rasping volley from distance that is a surefire contender for the club's goal of the season award.
He also has three assists to his name, three more than he had in his debut season at Old Trafford.
This term he has attempted a total of 1011 passes, completing an impressive 85 percent to teammates.
Though his pass completion percentage was 84 percent in 2008/09, he averaged far fewer attempted passes per game, typifying a greater reluctance to involve himself in the action.
The technical side of the Brazilian's game has improved immensely.
He has improved in cross completion percentage from 21 percent to 26 percent, as well as in successful dribbles from 42 percent to 63 percent per game.
Where he may have looked panicked and error-prone under pressure from opponents in the past, he is now far more composed with the ball at his feet.
The most telling stat, though, has to be in the number of touches Rafa has averaged per game this term.
In his debut season, he made 61 touches per game, whereas now he averages 73.
In looking ahead to the future, Rafael has to be optimistic regarding his chances of becoming Manchester United's long-term No. 1 at right-back.
Sir Alex Ferguson has typically shown great patience and loyalty to full-backs who have performed well for him—the likes of Denis Irwin, Gary Neville and Patrice Evra come to mind in this respect.
One of the reasons for his landmark campaign has been the absence of his twin brother Fabio, who the Red Devils loaned to QPR in the summer.
Without his sibling nearby, Rafa has had the room to mature and focus on tasks ahead.
The two could very well be United's future defensive partners on either flank, but for now it is Rafael who is pulling ahead with consistently excellent performances at the highest level of the game.
What have you made of Rafael's season so far? What does the future hold in store for him and his brother?
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