It’s not been an easy journey for Rafael Da Silva, but it would seem that finally, United have found the heir to Gary Neville’s throne at right back.
Handing the young Brazilian full back the number two jersey was a symbolic gesture, one that confirmed Rafael’s immense improvement since joining the club in 2008, but in many ways it was also a fitting one because Rafael is a player fitting of the number held with such distinction by Neville, the player who will tell you he carved out a career spanning over a decade at the top of the football pyramid on very limited natural ability. Rafael might only be 22 years old, but his rise to prominence as one of United’s best performance thus far this season is confirmation of the youngsters mental fortitude and willingness to learn, striking a remarkable resemblance to that of his predecessor.
The rash tackles have been replaced with better hold up play, his positioning and timing of his runs has gotten immeasurably better, the forward runs have a better end product, and he’s even getting his name on the score-sheet. Injuries to other suitors have perhaps forced Sir Alex’s hand, but his performances mean that Rafael will not be reprising his spot in the first team any time soon.
It is a tad ironic that Rafael coming into his own as the club’s undisputed first choice right back, an area where United have been constantly rotating since Wes Brown managed an injury free season in 2007/08, has coincided with turmoil at left back, a position that has been held down by Patrice Evra since towards the end of the 2006/07 season. He was perhaps caught out on occasion against Tottenham Hotspurs at the weekend, but for the most part, United’s number two is virtually unrecognizable from the young, rash teenager that so often frustrated and inspired in equal measure. A red card in the second leg of a crucial 2010 Champions League quarter final against Bayern Munchen probably cost United a fourth consecutive semi-final appearance, was perhaps the defender’s lowest point thus far in a United shirt, but far from being discouraged by the incident, his improvement since has been exponential.
A right back blessed with notable natural talent, and the work ethic and battling qualities of Neville. That’s some combination.
Antonio Valencia should also be commended in his role in facilitating Rafael’s rising stock, as it is behind the Ecuadorian winger that the Brazilian has been allowed to flourish. Playing behind a regular partner like Valencia, a brilliant winger in his own right but one that never shirks his defensive responsibilities, has undoubtedly aided Rafael’s cause, with the two linking up to devastating effect a number of times already this season. It is a partnership that has offered plenty of promise since Valencia joined the club in 2009, a year after Rafael had arrived at United, but it is one that has only fully flourished recently with a consistent run of games for both Rafael and Valencia, as Rafael battled with form and competition from the likes of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, whilst Valencia battled against a horrific ankle injury suffered in the Champions League.
With so many years ahead of him, Rafael is set to get better and better as the years go on. Potential is not always fulfilled, as we have been reminded of by certain players within the youth system at the club in recent years, but progress is relatively assured where Rafael is concerned because he always plays for the shirt, never gets ahead of himself and he works relentlessly hard at improving his game, as demonstrated by the wonderful improvements we have already seen from him.
Being voted Manchester United’s player of the month for September by fans on the club’s official website is just a further reminder of his ever improving quality, and the way he has endeared himself to the fans.