When a football commentator seems almost embarrassed to ask his co-commentator who he thinks the Man of The Match is, such is the formality of the response, you know a player has had a game to remember.
In truth, no one in their right mind who observed the second half of Leeds vs Southampton would have given it to anyone other than Raphinha, Leeds’ breath-taking Brazilian that is lighting up the Premier League will dazzling performances week in, week out.
Tuesday night’s game was probably his best since his move from Rennes in the summer transfer window for around £18 million, a fee that now looks like one of the biggest bargains of recent times. A superb free-kick capped off a near unplayable performance that would have kept Jan Bednarek and his defensive colleagues up all night, and put every full-back in the Premier League on notice.
There is a saying in football that “it’s worth the admission fee just to watch him.” Raphinha is in a select group of players that it applies to at the moment. He can go past players like they’re not there, has an eye for a pass and has distinct quality in the final third, which can’t be said for some other exciting attacking players we’ve seen in recent years.
Raphinha’s Career and Progress
Anyone that has followed his progress would have known that before Raphinha signed for Leeds. In the 2017/18 season, Raphinha took Liga Nos by storm, registering 15 goals and 5 assists in a Vitoria Guimaraes team that only finished 9th in Liga Nos. This earned him a move to Portuguese heavyweights Sporting Lisbon, where, in truth, his numbers tailed off slightly.
He recorded 7 goals in all competitions in the 18/19 season, before moving to Rennes in Ligue 1 where he impressed and registered 9 goals and 5 assists, enough to catch the eye of Bielsa and Leeds.
Raphinha’s Transition into English Football
His record at his previous clubs shows that he has always possessed a quality end product, but it has been taken to the next level by Bielsa and his coaching staff. However, perhaps the most impressive aspect about Raphinha’s smooth transition into English football is the way he has slotted into Bielsa’s system, which is well renowned for being one of the hardest systems in the world to play in, both for the tactical and physical demands it places on you.
Raphinha presses with effort and commitment, but intelligence in equal measure. He doesn’t give defenders a second of peace on the ball, but makes sure that he hunts with 2 or 3 team-mates rather than as a lone wolf, making it very difficult to play out of Leeds’ press.
Marcelo Bielsa won’t adapt his meticulous system for any individual, so it’s up to new signings to get up to speed quickly with his demands. The biggest compliment you can pay Raphinha is that you wouldn’t know he was a new signing, such is the way he slots into the way Leeds play, both with and without the ball.
Although the way Raphinha has bought into Leeds’ system is impressive, it’s what he does with the ball that has ultimately got people talking about him as one of the in-form players in the league. He has shown glimpses of his quality ever since he touched down in England, but he has taken his game to the next level in the last 7 games, churning out numerous Man Of the Match performances and notching 3 goals and 4 assists.
He’s incredibly gifted with the ball at his feet, with one of the best first touches in the league and an ability to go past defenders like they’re not there. His bag of tricks is deep and seems almost endless, as Gary Cahill found out when Raphinha mercilessly “rouletted” the ball through his legs midway through another dazzling performance against Crystal Palace a couple of weeks ago.
However, as earlier mentioned, where Raphinha differentiates from some other exciting attackers in the league is his end product.
Raphinha’s Underlying Statistics
In the last 6 games, he has created 17 chances and 6 big chances, the most of any midfielder in the league. He has also notched 8 shots on target in that time, which ranks him joint 1st amongst Premier League midfielders and has the highest xA in the league (2.21).
These numbers prove that his latest upturn in goal involvements has been no fluke. It’s happening for a number of reasons. Firstly, he his receiving the ball a lot more in areas where he can do damage to opponents. He has had 185 touches in the final third in his last 6 matches, which is allowing him plenty of opportunity to make an impact.
Secondly, his confidence has gone up, which has raised his performance levels and is allowing him to take risks that he perhaps wasn’t taking earlier in the season. The last 2 games have showcased this perfectly. He has averaged a WhoScored match rating of 8.6 in the last 2 games, and his statistics against Wolves in particular were quite remarkable.
The Brazilian completed 6 key passes and 4 shots against the Black Country club, and it was nothing short of an injustice that he ended up on the losing team at Molineux. He backed that up with a further 4 key passes against Southampton.
These incredible underlying statistics won’t come as a surprise if you’ve had the pleasure of watching Raphinha in the last 2 games. He is the definition of a player that gets you “on the edge of your seat”. Whenever he gets the ball, his first thought seems to be to either pass or dribble forward, rather than taking the safe option and playing backwards, as you see so often in modern football.
There is a purpose to his play, as seen by the fact that he has crossed the ball 46 times in the last 6 games, with 27% of those crosses reaching one of his Leeds team-mates, one of them being the peach of a delivery that he placed on Patrick Struijk’s head for another assist against Arsenal.
He also possesses goal-scoring threat from distance, with his superb free-kick against Southampton the 3rd goal he has scored outside the box so far this season. This means that he must be closed down quickly when he’s running with the ball, which opens up space for his team-mates and gives a player of his quality the opportunity to notch assists.
As you can see on the below graphic from understat, Raphinha is never afraid to shoot, and his ability to do so from almost any point on the pitch demonstrates what a tricky customer he is to defend against.
The intelligence Raphinha demonstrates from a defensive point of view also carries over to his movement in the final third when Leeds are attacking. Now that he has built a reputation within the league as a dangerous attacker, he demands close attention from opposing defenders.
He is now displaying an ability to use this as a way of freeing up space for his team-mates, which can be seen by the way he creates Stuart Dallas’ goal in the game against Southampton, without even touching the ball. Raphinha makes a lung-busting, cross-field run from the left wing and ensures he runs across the eye-line of Vestergaard, who naturally moves out of position slightly to track his run.
This opens up space for Dallas, who finishes superbly to give Leeds the lead. His clever movement also helps to create Patrick Bamford’s goal in Leeds’ win over Crystal Palace. He makes a glorious run in behind Gary Cahill, who can’t live with his pace and doesn’t know he’s there until it’s too late. The goalkeeper makes a good save from Raphinha’s effort but the ball falls kindly to Bamford, who has a tap-in.
As Raphinha’s stock grows, he needs to sustain this clever movement over a prolonged period in order to create more opportunities for himself and his team-mates. If he can demonstrate this ability consistently, I believe he has all the ingredients to be an elite player.
What is next for Raphinha?
The big question on people’s lips is “what’s next for Raphinha?”.
The first thing to note is that he is not the finished article. He is only 24 and this is his first season in the Premier League, which means there are a few weaknesses in his game that need to be ironed out. He is prone to giving the ball away, which comes with the territory of being an exciting flare player. He lost possession 26 times in the Wolves game, and 17 times in the Southampton game. However, with the amount of time he spends on the ball, this is not something that I would be too worried about.
However, I would like to see him get at full-backs more often. He has blistering pace and vast array of tricks, so it was a surprise to see that he has only attempted 59 take-ons so far this season, less than half the number of Adama Traore, who leads the league in that particular metric. They are, of course, two completely different players, but I certainly don’t think many defenders in the league would feel comfortable if Raphinha took them on 1-on-1 consistently over 90 minutes, as Traore often does.
Raphinha’s goal record also doesn’t jump off the page at you, but he already has 5 Premier League goals this season and I would expect that number to be close to 10-12 come the end of the season, which would be a very decent return in his first Premier League season. He will undoubtedly have to add more goals to his game if he is to play for one of the top European clubs, as I believe he is capable of doing.
Although he has areas in which he must improve, there is no doubt that Raphinha has immense qualities and he would be an asset to most teams in Europe. I don’t think it’s disrespectful to Leeds to say that he feels like a player that is better than the team he is playing for, even though it could be argued that the system he is playing in is aiding his performances.
It’s no secret that some of Europe’s top clubs are watching the Brazilian’s progress keenly, with Manchester United, Liverpool and PSG all strongly rumoured to be interested in him. However, despite the possible advances of Europe’s elite, Leeds are in a powerful position. Firstly, they have Marcelo Bielsa, widely regarded as one of the best managers in the world and a man that has developed Raphinha’s game immeasurably in the space of seven months.
If Bielsa has managed to work his magic to this degree in such a little amount of time, imagine what he could do if he was to nurture Raphinha for another 18 months. Secondly, the Brazilian winger signed a 4 year contract when Leeds signed him from Rennes last summer, meaning there is no danger of them being bullied into selling with the risk of him running down his contract.
Leeds will know that a 24 year old winger, probably yet to hit his prime, putting in these eye-catching displays will make him hot property. They have him tied down to a long-term contract and also have aspirations of their own that he could be a massive part of. He fits their system to a glove and seems very happy in Yorkshire, so they really have no reason to sell unless a European giant comes to them with an offer they simply can’t refuse.
I would speculate that that’s unlikely to happen this summer, given the financial impact of COVID-19 on football clubs and the fact that, although Raphinha has lit up the league, this is still his first season in English football. In my opinion, another season at Leeds would make sense for all parties. Raphinha can master his trade under a world class coach in a system that is bringing the best out of him, and repay Leeds’ faith in him by helping them to a European position next season.
This would be the perfect time to move to one of Europe’s top clubs, who would have received a big financial boost from the likely return of fans next season and will be signing a player who is about to enter his prime years. Leeds would be able to use the substantial fee to replace Raphinha and further boost their squad, which needs upgrades in certain areas if they’re to challenge for European football.
One thing is for sure, it would be a crying shame if Leeds fans weren’t able to give Raphinha the famous Elland Road roar after the joy he has provided them in these difficult times.