It’s famously said that maturity is only a short break in adolescence. Yet, in Rafael Da Silva’s case, it seems more of a coming of age or even an inevitable phenomenon finally coming to life. For the past season or two, perhaps even more, Rafael has flattered to deceive to say the least. May be it was the burden of expectations weighing him down, but one reckons it was mostly the over-exuberance of youth. Rafael has, for some time now, been on the cusp of nailing the right-back birth for Manchester United – a job which in modern day football demands a lot out of the athlete.
Gary Neville, former United captain and the last rightful owner of the number 2 jersey for United being symbolic of the right-back position in the team, would testify that this boy from Brazil has all the attributes that makes a fantastic full back. Before the season commenced, Sir Alex displayed tremendous faith by handing over the coveted jersey number 2 to Rafael, and it’s fair to say the manager’s faith has been rewarded and how. Rafael da Silva circa 2012-13 has undeniably been the most consistent Manchester United player on view and that should come as a grave shock to many pundits convinced that the full back will not make it at the Theater of Dreams. United fans, however, must feel vindicated. Red Devils around the world have endlessly backed the Da Silva twins against all comers and finally their patience seems to bear fruit.
Experts have often been critical of Rafael’s perceived rashness and his eagerness to go for that sliding tackle – a sign of his incompetence they reckon. Yet, nobody remembers the fact that Rafael is still very much a youngster and shouldn’t be expected to be flawless Ergo, those searching for perfection in a young full back still learning his trade are being naïve and it couldn’t be any more ironic.
What’s changed then? Is this the much anticipated watershed moment in his career or possibly just a prolonged purple patch? Rafael’s new found maturity and calmness can be attributed to a number of factors.
The separation of the twins with Fabio’s loan spell at QPR could possibly have served as a wake-up call for Rafael as he was now literally out on his own. One must remember the season 2010-11 ended with Fabio having sealed a starting spot ahead of his twin and was definitely the first choice right-back for the Red Devils. Fabio was one of the better performers in that Champions League final defeat at the hands of Barcelona at Wembley and his future looked to be safe at Old Trafford. A season and a few games down the line, Fabio’s star has nose-dived with him being loaned out to the Rangers.
Rafael must have feared the worst himself, with competition for the right full-back spot intense as ever. Phil Jones proved a sensation with his early season exploits in the last campaign and even ended the season on a high, possibly ahead of Rafa in the pecking order. Chris Smalling too, made number of noteworthy appearances with his height proving a big advantage in swaying the manager’s mind in his favor especially against teams adept at playing the long ball game. Furthermore, even Antonio Valencia made a brief impact at the much coveted position, further adding to already overwhelming competition. But the curly haired Samba boy is anything but a quitter, competition, it seems, brings the best out of Rafael and that is just the trait Ferguson cherishes in his players.
What has certainly helped Rafael is a sustained and a prolonged run in the team. Rafa is very much an athlete who grows into the season and gets better with games under his belt. Also, for the first time in quite a while, Rafael has managed to stay clear of the injury curse hanging over the squad like the Sword of Damocles and that has no doubts made a world of difference.
Surely, though, the most heartening feature must be the marked improvement in the youngster’s decision making. Often accused of the odd brain fart that has led his team into trouble, Rafael has tended to mix caution with aggression. One more positive has been the improvement in his positioning as he rarely gets caught out of position despite being heavily involved in most attacks down the right flank. Rafael’s maturity is clearly visible on many occasions when he has positioned himself astutely to help the right center back at the far post, certainly a sign of taking up added responsibility.
An inform Rafael sticks to his man like glue to paper and has often marked big names out of contests. When it comes to dealing with pace merchants, Fergie has invariably put his trust on the Brazilian dynamo. Rafa’s peak level is stratospheric to say the least and when on song the boy from Brazil performs both – defensive duties and forward runs with equal panache. Yet, there is an inherent quality to the boy’s game that puts him on a completely different pedestal. Rafael never backs down from a fight and has the heart of a lion. His child-like looks might fool the casual onlooker but his steely resolve has made him a fan favorite among the United support group. Invariably, derby days and big European nights bring out the best in the little Brazilian.
However, despite his strong and impressive start to the season, Rafael just can’t get complacent with his fine run of form as players like Phil Jones and Chris Smalling will be itching to get back to fitness and stake their claim in the starting eleven. The returning duo has an edge over the Brazilian with more than a few inches in height to their advantage. Ferguson does prefer a tall back four against physical sides, but Rafael could make himself indispensable by virtue of immaculate performances. Gary Neville did it, so can Rafael.
Even after four topsy-turvy seasons at one of the biggest clubs in the game one must remember Rafael is yet only 22. There will be challenges a plenty heading his way in the near and distant future but for now the boy must keep his head down and keep running up and down that right wing for Manchester United.