Raphinha’s immaculate through ball showed Bielsa was right to hype
The year 2022 will be a big one for Leeds United’s Raphinha.
Twelve months from now he could be a World Cup winner looking to add a Champions League crown with Bayern Munich, or Chelsea, or Liverpool – if reports are to be believed.
Raphinha is enjoying the best season of his career to date and looks sure to feature in Brazil’s World Cup campaign in December – he may even start for the Selecao in Qatar.
While boasting such a world-class talent is something for Leeds to wear as a badge of honour, it also marks an inconvenient truth for a club that knows all too well the pain of being somewhere in the middle of football’s cut-throat food chain.
Nearly 20 years ago, Leeds’ record signing and club captain Rio Ferdinand departed for hated rivals Manchester United, while their 16-year spell out of the Premier League was marked by seeing their best and brightest go on to bigger and better things.
The fans at Elland Road have become so accustomed to waving goodbye to their heroes that seeing Raphinha shine so regularly comes with a glum sense of inevitability.
Here’s a Brazilian superstar that could and arguably should be playing Champions League football – how can Leeds expect to keep him when they’re slumming it near the foot of the table?
Club chairman Andrea Radrizzani has spoken of ambitions of European football, while a stadium expansion and full takeover by the San Francisco 49ers appears imminent.
But they’re a long way off competing for a top-six or top-four finish, and to get there Radrizzani has also cited the Leicester model as their best practice strategy.
Leicester, of course, have got brilliant service out of the likes of N’Golo Kante, Riyad Mahrez, Harry Maguire and Ben Chilwell before selling them on for a massive profit.
Raphinha would likely go for at least four times what Leeds originally paid for him following promotion in 2019 – selling him in the summer would be following Leicester’s example to a tee.
Raphinha 🤝 Scoring against Everton pic.twitter.com/KlmHlz2f3y
— Leeds United (@LUFC) August 21, 2021
Yet noises out of Elland Road suggest that Leeds will fight tooth and nail to keep their star asset, or at least protect his value as much as possible.
“It’s a great decision,” Marcelo Bielsa said in his pre-match press conference ahead of the West Ham match, when asked about reports that the club are currently working on extending the Brazilian’s contract, which expires in 2024.
“Raphinha’s the best player in the team in all the senses. Physically he’s the best, technically he’s at the level of the best and his interpretation of the game is very wise.
“He’s within the group of such a powerful nation as Brazil, he shines in the Premier League and he has the attention of all the big clubs in the world.
“All of those things are something you guys know as well. Nothing I’m saying is new. As a result, the decision of the club can only be valued.”
It’s strong words from Bielsa that are illustrative of where the club and player are at.
The 25-year-old enjoyed a brilliant debut season in Yorkshire, but he was one of several players that shone in a collective context for a newly-promoted club that punched above their weight to finish ninth.
Stuart Dallas was named Player of the Season, Patrick Bamford finished top scorer with 17 Premier League goals, Kalvin Phillips ended his first top-flight campaign by starring for England as they made their first major final in over 50 years, while Jack Harrison ended up with more goals and assists in the Premier League than any other English midfielder.
That’s not been the case in 2021-22, with an injury-savaged Leeds toiling against the drop and increasingly facing the charge of being a one-man team.
Raphinha underlined his quality when he became an overnight sensation in his home country back in October, a darling of the Brazilian media after his explosively exciting first international appearances.
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Bielsa calling Raphinha Leeds’ best player was the plain and simple truth, which was reinforced early on in Sunday’s clash at West Ham, with a graphic on Sky Sports flashing up that showed the Brazilian top in basically every attacking metric for Leeds this season – goals, shots, chances created, passes into the penalty area…
The issue that comes with Raphinha’s new-found talisman status is the pressure that comes with delivering, and performing when the opposition sets up their game plan to double or triple-up on stopping you.
This is often what divides the good players from the great ones. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo spent well over a decade at the absolute top whilst they were known as the best players in the world, and Mohamed Salah keeps on delivering for Liverpool this season.
For a short while, Raphinha looked like he was struggling to live up to his superstar billing. He stepped up to score pressure penalties against Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Arsenal, but has failed to score from open play in his last nine appearances, and often looked uncharacteristically quiet over that run.
The 3-1 victory over Burnley, a relegation six-pointer, was unusual in that Raphinha was not one of Leeds’ standout players – a first this season.
Against West Ham on Sunday, Raphinha stepped up to validate every word of Bielsa’s effusive praise a couple of days prior.
It was a superb team performance with no shortage of grit and character, not allowing their heads to drop when two senior players had to be withdrawn early to be replaced by academy players making their Premier League debuts, nor when the hosts equalised – twice.
The 3-2 win was Leeds’ first over top-half opposition this season.
Harrison deservedly dominated the headlines with a first career hat-trick comprised of three excellent finishes, but the game’s outstanding moment of quality came in the form of Raphinha’s assist for the match-winner.
It was a classic Bielsa goal, that started with Dallas springing into action to win the ball in West Ham’s half. Four touches and seven seconds later, the ball was in the back of the net – but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
🔥 "Harrison! The man!" pic.twitter.com/0Ec11hFJyg
— Leeds United (@LUFC) January 16, 2022
Picking the ball after Dallas’ intervention, Raphinha strode forward and only need a couple of seconds to assess how to inflict maximum damage.
Spotting Harrison making the run from behind him, Leeds’ No.10 played a perfectly weighted pass into a patch of grass that was agonisingly out of reach for West Ham’s defenders and the onrushing Lukasz Fabianski. Harrison didn’t even need to break stride to clip it over the goalkeeper and complete his hat-trick.
The vision to spot the pass was the perfect encapsulation of what Bielsa had called his “very wise interpretation of the game”.
Fifteen minutes later, Raphinha demonstrated his lethal combination of skill and vision once again to leave Issa Diop eating his dust, stride toward the six-yard box and rather than leather it across towards the mass of bodies immediately ahead of him (two Leeds, three West Ham), he coolly cut it back to an unmarked Mateusz Klich to finish.
Only a VAR nonsense stopped it being a killer fourth goal for Leeds.
All eyes are on Leeds’ star man – not least from the scouts of Europe’s top clubs. On the evidence of that pass against West Ham, Raphinha is a player that thrives on the attention.
It surely won’t be long until we see him producing such moments on the biggest stages of all.