“His form this season has been brilliant. He’s tougher now.
“Gary came to us as a centre-back and wasn’t the finished article when he came into our team. Gary became a fantastic full-back, perhaps the best this club has ever had.
“Rafael is perhaps more naturally talented than Gary. But he was making mistakes in games. Now we are all hoping that maturity will come along and the rashness disappear.”
These are the words of Sir Alex Ferguson on who I believe to be our player of the season. Sure, Rafael hasn’t been winning games for United like Robin van Persie, controlling the midfield like Michael Carrick or isn’t the last line of the defence that David de Gea has become, but despite those players’ significant contributions to this league-winning campaign, Rafael has quietly gone about his business and persevered most tellingly into our outstanding performer of 2012/13.
There was talk at the start of the season of who would be our first-choice right-back – Chris Smalling had a decent run there last season, as did Phil Jones. But there was never any doubt that Rafael was destined for the role of Neville’s successor. This was evident when he chose to take the number 2 shirt in exchange for his 21. He was a man on a mission and over the course of the season, he has accomplished his target.
You probably won’t be surprised to know that this term has seen Rafael play the most games in a season for the Reds. He’s made 38 appearances so far, a notable feat for a number of reasons. Well, for one thing, he only played 18 times last season. More importantly though, the Brazilian made the decision to join up with the United squad straight after his Olympic final defeat to Mexico on August 11. The 22-year-old was in a dark place when his sloppy pass allowed Javier Aquino to nip in and dispossess Sandro before Peralta opened the scoring in the 2-1 win for the Mexicans. He was eventually replaced and has not represented his country since.
Rafael, like de Gea, was allowed an extra break after the Olympics but turned the offer down to ensure he did not miss the opportunity to cement his place in Ferguson’s side. With both Jones and Smalling out injured, we started the season at Everton with Antonio Valencia at right-back.
After the defeat at Goodison Park, which also saw Carrick playing at centre-half, Rafael was unrelenting in his quest to nail down that position. His season debut was a sign of things to come as he scored what proved to be the winner against Fulham at Old Trafford. In a nervy conclusion to the game, Rafael stood up to a lively Fulham attack when a determined Moussa Dembele pushed his side on for a late equaliser. It set the defender’s season off well, but I didn’t choose Rafael as our best player this season simply due to his form and ability. His mental-strength and desire to overcome adversity has impressed me more.
It’s not been an easy ride for Rafa as he received the embarrassing fate of being hooked in the first half at Reading in December for a showing reminiscent of his previous immaturity. He was booked early on in the game and it looked like an eventuality that he would be sent off. Fergie pulled him off and Rafael was visibly furious. He sat on the bench mumbling to himself and I quite enjoyed seeing the pain in his eyes. It meant he cared. It meant he would prove the doubters wrong. It was the making of him. Rafael has rarely put a foot wrong since. He has always been gifted and we all know how good he is going forward, he has scored three goals this season and also assisted three. But the difference now is he has balanced these offensive instincts with defensive balance. He knows when to make the overlap, he knows when to take on the opposing full-back. More impressive is how he now makes the right challenges. The Rafael of old would fly into tackles recklessly. The crowd would applaud his youthful energy but it wouldn’t be long before he was limping off begrudgingly. He shared this trait with his brother, as his manager noted, and this has been his biggest improvement.
After the Reading match, there was another test of Rafael’s mettle. His name was Cristiano Ronaldo. Ferguson gave Rafa the biggest vote of confidence by highlighting him as the man to stop the world’s best player. The manager talked up Rafael’s improvement in the press conference before the game with Rafael sat, slightly red-faced, beside him. The first half at the Bernabeu was testing for the young full-back and was expected to be substituted at the interval after being tormented by Ronaldo and Ozil. His performance in the second half was a microcosm of his entire season – overcoming hardship and proving his worth as a fighter, a winner, a defender. He knew he would not be able to gallop along the flank to aid our attacks and on that night in Madrid, became a bona fide defender – giving priority to defensive shape and complete discipline.
It was his rashness and over-enthusiastic nature that got him sent off in the Champions League quarter-final against Bayern Munich three years ago. His disciplinary record this term hasn’t been perfect, amassing seven yellow cards, but he knows where the line is.
But this level-headedness has also seen Rafael virtually injury-free. Fergie said earlier this season about the twins: “They are strong, sturdy boys but possibly their injury record is because of the way they play.
“They are a wee bit too optimistic in the challenges they make. They always put their foot in attacking-wise, they don’t see danger. Bryan Robson was that way.
“The two of them are terrific talents but you hope maturity eradicates all these things they have.”
I think it’s fair to say that Rafael has matured into the undisputed right-back at Manchester United and his development and maturity has unfortunately gone largely unnoticed. On the international front too.
Rafael and Fabio both have two senior caps for Brazil, won at different times. It was Rafael, however, who seemed to progress into the set-up in the last year as he was selected for squads and eventually the Olympic team. After his mistake in the gold medal match, it has looked like a struggle for him to get back into the set-up. With new national team boss Luiz Felipe Scolari taking over in January, and Rafael’s amazing form over the season, it may lead to redemption and, who knows, maybe a World Cup spot at next summer’s home finals. Speaking to the Independent earlier this season, brother Fabio shed some light on the national team heart-ache.
“It was very hard,” Fabio says. “He is very upset about this and he wants to be back in the squad. It is sad. Me and my brother, normally we don’t show the emotion. Brazilians want you to cry. We don’t do this. When he left the pitch he didn’t cry. This is so important in Brazil and the media and fans started to say, ‘He doesn’t care, he plays for United and he doesn’t want to play in the national team’.
“It [the criticism] is [intense] because the only title Brazil don’t have is the Olympic gold medal. My brother hasn’t let it get him down. He has played fantastic this season. But he wants to get back in the national team and play at the World Cup. I do too.”
While we’re on the subject of Rafael’s twin brother and fellow United full-back, it is clear that both have grown since Fabio’s loan move to QPR. Fabio said: “Now we have split, it’s better. I tell you, when me and him play together we look at each other. When I make a mistake I’m not saying he feels – he doesn’t lose confidence but he gets less [diminished] a little bit.
“Now [this season] when he plays and he has a good game and another good game he gets confidence. When I was there sometimes I was not playing or not playing well. Maybe he feels that I am down… because we lived together [in Manchester]. Sometimes when he plays he is happy. Sometimes when I play I am happy. Now we are getting more mature. He is there. I am here.”
“Now we understand each other more. This is football. We are different. He is there, I am here. When we are together we discuss this. I say, ‘When I play bad you don’t have to be unhappy.’”
The move to QPR arguably has done more for Rafael than it has Fabio as it has enabled him to focus on his game without worrying about how his brother fares. It was a season of isolation for Rafael and he has grown into a top-quality right-back. He still has areas he needs to improve on but what we have witnessed this season is the making of a man.
In spite of all his trials, Rafael has gone on to claim his third league title’s medal. But perhaps more telling is this new-found independence as a person, he’s no longer just Fabio’s brother. He has made sure that he is now known as Manchester United’s number two.
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