Manchester United’s Brazilian right back Rafael has shown a lot of promise over the last 18 months or so, so much so that the retirement of club stalwart Gary Neville went relatively unnoticed. But there is a feeling that persists, that for the player to truly reach his potential, he must rein in his temper and his passion to the extent whereby he isn’t considered a reckless inclusion by Sir Alex Ferguson for the bigger games any longer.
The only noticeable drawback to Rafael’s immense talent is his failure at times to control his temper. He is very quick, rarely turned inside out by a winger and combines a fierce tackle with enthusiasm going forward – in short, the perfect modern day full-back.
It has even been suggested by many, particularly in light of the side’s 2-0 over Arsenal in the FA Cup last week, that he and his twin-brother Fabio may find their true calling further forward on the wing rather than at full-back. The fact that the notion cannot be regarded as absurd is as big a testament to their versatility as it is an indictment of the likes of Obertan and Bebe.
The hangover from Rafael’s red card against Bayern Munich in last season’s Champions League is still evident though. That game-changing dismissal has ensured that Rafael is not quite yet the club’s first-choice right back, even when there appears to be little standing in his way. He kept Franck Ribery perfectly quiet for almost an hour until his dismissal and yet again his ill-discipline appears to get in the way of his development. His harsh sending off against Spurs almost nearly cost the club a point away at White Hart Lane earlier in the campaign too.
John O’Shea has been a steady and dependable presence at the back this season and has to be considered Rafael’s main rival for the slot. On ability alone, it’s a no-contest, Rafael wins hands-down. Yet Ferguson has still plumped for O’Shea over Rafael at times last season and this season, most notably in wins against both Chelsea and Man City last month.
Rafael was also fortunate to stay on the pitch after tempers flared against Liverpool on the 6th March, after a two-footed lunge on Lucas that the midfielder was lucky enough to escape unharmed from. Fortunately for both sides, Phil Dowd’s ineptitude in not sending off Jamie Carragher earlier on in the game for a horrific lunge on Nani only helped to serve as a precursor for such inadequately lenient officiating that has become Dowd’s hallmark.
O’Shea offers the no frills approach that Ferguson sometimes prefers in the bigger games. Rafael, though the better player and right back, does come with the footnote of being liable to let his passion get the better of him, particularly when faced with players of Argentinean descent it would appear.
At just 20 years of age, there is of course time for Rafael to develop this side of his game. He will do well to take note of Gary Neville’s attitude during his Man Utd career too as a role model to follow for the future. Neville drew a thin line between antagonising his opposite number and performing an effective role in the team. Other than against Liverpool, Neville rarely let his emotions get the better of him on the pitch and for all his faults, he was undoubtedly a consummate professional.
Upon his retirement, Neville was downplayed in some quarters as being a player that got the best out of what limited ability he had through sheer force of will to succeed – for me, that is a gross underestimation of one of the best right backs the English game has ever seen, which in his pomp, had a delivery to match even the best wingers’.
While Neville’s talents and technique have been swept under the carpet, Rafael’s will surely not. His boundless energy, while his greatest strength, can also be his greatest weakness in certain situations. Out of Man Utd’s current crop of young players, barring perhaps Chris Smalling, Rafael represents the club’s greatest prospect.
International honours may have to wait for some time with the likes of Maicon and Daniel Alves in front of him, but when it comes to club football, the only thing standing in Rafael’s way in terms of pinning down the right back slot, ahead of John O’Shea, for the forseeable future would appear to be his questionable temperament.
The naivety of youth can lead to hot-headed actions in the heat of a match sometimes, and the only thing standing in Rafael’s way at the moment is his decision-making in the tackle. But, and it’s a big but, until he learns the time and place to go in full-blooded, he will not earn the full trust of manager Alex Ferguson to perform without incident in the big games and he will have to contend with rivals for his position of lesser ability and potential such as John O’Shea.
Rafael is a Manchester United star of the future, as is Ravel Morrison…