The poor performance and show of petulance in the 4-3 win at Reading should have been the marker for what would end up being a forgettable season for Rafael da Silva. League titles aside, it could have been difficult for the youngster to recover from his first-half substitution and resulting childish behaviour. To his credit, however, the Brazilian has bounced back and gone on to become one of Manchester United’s most consistent players in the second half of this season.
To shower praise solely on Robin van Persie for the league title would be wrong; so too would it be if we stopped at the next tier down and found total satisfaction in Michael Carrick’s contributions. It now appears that United have addressed the issue at right-back and found the long-term successor to Gary Neville.
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The physicality and necessary learning curve of the Premier League has resulted in this season for Rafael. Not only does he look like an attacker keeping true to his Brazilian roots, but he now adds the defensive dimension to his game that’s needed to excel at this level. At 22, how much more is there to come from the full-back?
You have to find the smaller success stories that build the bigger picture. Once this season got fully underway and the league table started to take realistic shape, it only seemed likely that the title would head back to Old Trafford. The sour taste left on this Manchester United team on the final day of last season has had an effect, not just for the older and more experienced players, but for the younger group that will form the foundation of this team for the foreseeable future.
Players like Rafael have taken on that winning mentality and used to it improve their game. It’s about taking responsibility for the club and yourself, where at other clubs it’s easy for youngsters to hide behind their age or other more established stars. At 22, and provided he’s fit, Rafael is a staple of this United XI, and while an alternate option may be required, it would be incredibly unjust to drop the Brazilian from a position he’s made his own.
But to paint the picture that the story is over would be dangerous. Rafael remains prone to moments that are true to his age, while the club will be keen to ensure that he remains on an upward trajectory – of which I’m sure they’ll be successful. Even with two league titles under his belt prior to this season, it never seemed enough for the player. Being offered the duty of taking over from a player in Gary Neville who has been such a big part of United’s recent history has only allowed for Rafael to improve; as if the confidence from others has washed away any possible doubt in his own mind.
This has been the breakout year for a player who was always equipped with the tools to be one of the best in the Premier League. From his debut goal against Arsenal in a 2-1 loss at the Emirates, to further adding to his array of stunning efforts this season, Rafael has become a genuine weapon in the Manchester United attack as well as a defender continually improving on the most important aspect of his trade.
It will always be about winning, especially for a club like Manchester United. But such is the regularity of their domestic successes that they are equally able to take in other aspects of a winning campaign, and this season could very well be the emergence of Rafael as one of the best right-backs in England.
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