Not many players earn a great deal of autonomy from Marcelo Bielsa, but there are exceptions to the rule: “As a coach with someone like Raphinha, if I tried to intervene, I would only be a nuisance.”
The legendary Johan Cruyff once said: “It is statistically proven that players actually have the ball for three minutes on average. So, the most important thing is: what do you do during those 87 minutes when you do not have the ball? That is what determines whether you’re a good player or not”.
While the numbers may have changed over the years, THAT principle will never fade. Even the great teams of European football are characterised by what their attacking players do without the ball at their feet.
In his autobiography “My Turn”, Cruyff built on his earlier thoughts by adding “it isn’t the man on the ball who decides where the ball goes, but the players without the ball. Their running actions determine the next pass.”
Marcelo Bielsa can be defined by his stubbornness and determination to do things his way was shown when Leeds were 2-0 down at half-time to Everton. He substituted Raphinha. The man many thought was Leeds’ best chance of a comeback.
The player with twice as many goals as any of his teammates; indeed, a winger in a relegation struggle who has only been outscored by Mohamed Salah, Diogo Jota, Raheem Sterling, Heung-Min Son, Jamie Vardy and Cristiano Ronaldo in the Premier League.
The Brazilian has been both Leeds’ best finisher and creator this season. As they face Manchester United this Sunday, he looks their likeliest chance of victory.
He stands out, both against his teammates but also some of his opponents, looking like a player destined to join a better team in the summer.
🎙 Marcelo on #LUFC fans… pic.twitter.com/bMW5Sasl4B
— Leeds United (@LUFC) February 18, 2022
Suffice to say that in the short-term, Leeds need everything they can muster from Raphinha. In the long-term though, the 24-year-old is still pushing towards the ultimate version of himself as a player, which undeniably puts him in the capture range of Europe’s elite.
Regardless of where Leeds finish this season, his trajectory as a footballer is currently on a much quicker path towards the top of the game than the Whites are as a club.
How good is Raphinha?
There have been some questions asked about him and why he hasn’t been at the top level in the past few weeks, with some fans claiming that it’s because he played three times for Brazil in the winter break.
In actual fact, Raphinha was rested for the two league matches immediately after the October and November international periods, allowing him to recover and retain his fitness.
As Leeds were knocked out in the FA Cup third-round last month, they didn’t have a game on the first weekend in February but still had a game in midweek, which didn’t give Raphinha the same level of rest.
However, Leeds must stick by Raphinha given how he has performed across the campaign and there’s no doubt he is vitally important to the side which is backed up with statistics.
Chances Created, with breakdown by Open Play and Set Pieces, from TheOther14 in the #PL season so far. @Other14The
Raphinha and James Ward-Prowse at the top.#LUFC #SaintsFC #NUFC #WHUFC #CPFC #BHAFC #EFC #WatfordFC #AVFC #BrentfordFC #Wolves #twitterclarets pic.twitter.com/YPAn6iRCT1
— TheOther14 (@Other14The) February 15, 2022
Only Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse has recorded as many chances created with breakdown by open play and set pieces than Raphinha outside ‘The Big 6’ clubs this season (42).
Allan Saint-Maximin of Newcastle United is third with 37, while West Ham United forward Michail Antonio (35) and Crystal Palace star Conor Gallagher (33) make up the top-five.
Leeds teammate Jack Harrison (29) is also on the list, but Raphinha is ranked above Jarrod Bowen and Emiliano Buendia, who have both been praised for their performances this term.
Raphinha’s nine assists last season put him joint sixth in the division, with only Harry Kane, Bruno Fernandes, Kevin de Bruyne, Jack Grealish and Son above him.
While his xA per 95 minutes has dropped from 0.35 to 0.23 this season, he has been a consistent threat, posting a combined xG + xA (xGI) over 0.50 per 95 in four consecutive seasons for Rennes and then Leeds.
This season’s total of 0.54 stands out in comparison: of non-strikers who play for non-top six clubs, only Jarred Bowen has been better so far this term.
Since making his first start in the Premier League in November 2020, only three players that can be classified as wingers or midfielders have produced more combined non-penalty goals and assists than Raphinha’s 19 in the competition: the illustrious trio of Mohamed Salah (32), Bruno Fernandes (22) and Son Heung-Min (20).
The Brazilian’s tally of 19 is made up of a near-even split of 10 goals and nine assists. In fact, during this period, only two players in the Premier League have been able to hit double figures in both categories.
🚨 NEW: With Jarrod Bowen and Raphinha both known to be of interest, Liverpool are looking at such a player for the summer. #awlive [liverpool echo] pic.twitter.com/HHAK0Eq5Ok
— Anfield Watch (@AnfieldWatch) February 15, 2022
🥶 Cold Rapha? pic.twitter.com/HB8KIF1hvJ
— Leeds United (@LUFC) February 16, 2022
Since his first start in the Premier League last November, he ranks joint-fourth for total assists (nine) and third for expected assists (8.9) in the competition. As an average of his minutes played, Riyad Mahrez (0.34) is the only winger with a higher rate of expected assists per 90 than Raphinha (0.26).
It’s also the variety with which he’s able to generate opportunities that make him Leeds’ golden goose; the source that they keep going back to during games. The Brazilian is a gifted ball carrier who can face opponents up one vs. one, who can hurt opponents with passes from deep and his deliveries into the penalty area generate frequent danger.
The complete package
He is not just Leeds’ top scorer but their best finisher, with eight goals from an xG (expected goals) of 5.95. Having never previously averaged more than 0.27 goals per 95 minutes in a full league season, he is now at 0.40. Everyone with a higher ratio, with the exceptions of Maxwel Cornet and Ismaila Sarr, is either a striker or a big-six player.
Neither Cornet nor Sarr has an assist, whereas Raphinha has two and ought to have had more. His expected assists (xA) total of 4.56 means only he, Jarrod Bowen and Mohamed Salah are in the top 10 for both goals and expected assists.
That difference of 2.26 makes him statistically one of the unluckiest creators in the division, along with Bernardo Silva, Kevin de Bruyne, Sadio Mane and Diogo Jota, with the chances they have supplied not reflected in their relatively meagre assist tallies.
Raphinha is, quite simply, a demon without the ball. He is averaging more sprints per 90 minutes played than any other player in the Premier League this season (29.6), and by quite a margin to any other winger. At the same time, he leads the league in runs into the final third per 90 that are targeted with passes from a teammate (eight).
The Brazilian is a stand-out player in the league for his ability to repeat these high-intensity efforts of movement off the ball, which has significant repercussions on the styles of play with which he’s able to fit into.
While he’s a gifted creator against defensive units that are designed to be broken down, his physical attributes and willingness to run without the ball make him an ideal weapon for transitioning from defence to attack, as well as attacking after recovering the ball through pressing.
Another aspect, given Leeds’ pressing, is Bielsa’s all-action style of play. Raphinha’s 33 tackles puts him behind Fernandes but with almost twice as many as any other Big 6 attacker; his 61 successful pressures is more than any of Big 6’s players except Fernandes.
He has attempted more pressures in the final third than anyone except Fernandes. And if Raphinha’s low success rate at pressures (23.0%) may be a sign he is not a natural, at least the effort is there.
Will Raphinha stay at Leeds?
His ability to contribute to all elements of the attack makes him Leeds’ leading individual in each category; he is a passer, dribbler, crosser and shooter.
As well as being seventh for shots, he is 10th in the Premier League for both progressive passes and crosses. He ranks second for nutmegs, with 12, third for players dribbled past, fourth for key passes and sixth for shot-creating actions.
Numbers alone do not do the player justice as he has turned into a game-changer for Marcelo Bielsa’s side on the flanks. It comes as no surprise that Raphinha’s performances have seen him garner interest from some of Europe’s top teams.
Understandably, Leeds remain keen on keeping their star man and have made several overtures to have him extend his contract. So far, that has been of no avail.
All in all, Raphinha’s goals, assists and performances have shown not only why he was linked with a move away from Leeds last summer but also why the club may have a challenge on their hands to keep hold of him this time around. If Leeds were to sell him in the summer, this would surely be an unforgivable act from the club that would definitely upset a lot of fans.
The Elland Road outfit reached out to Raphinha and his camp twice in January but have so far been given the cold shoulder. The Brazilian’s current contract runs until 2024, and Leeds still have some time in which they can convince him to sign on the dotted line.
As long as he keeps performing at a similar level, Raphinha will only continue to catch the eye of other top clubs, having also been linked with Bayern Munich not so long ago.
Raphinha’s transfer prediction
Just over four years ago, Leeds United’s Raphinha was plying his trade in the Brazilian second division. Born and raised in the south of Brazil, in the city of Porto Alegre, Raphael Dias Belloni would spend hours every day juggling the ball in the same streets as the man he idolised, Ronaldinho.
Now, having moved to Portugal, France, and now England, Raphinha is starting to establish himself as Marcelo Bielsa’s new offensive weapon.
Rennes, renown for producing talents such as Ousmane Dembélé, Abdoulaye Doucouré and Eduardo Camavinga, signed the Brazilian for €21 million, making him their record signing. Rennes president, Olivier Létang described the signing as “the biggest transfer in the modern history of the Stade Rennais.”
In a season where they are being sucked into the relegation dogfight, Raphinha has been Leeds’ shining light on the field. He has chipped in with eight goals and two assists and has been the difference-maker for the club in tight games. Their top scorer in this campaign, the 25-year-old’s importance to the club, cannot be understated.
Losing Raphinha is something that Leeds might have to prepare for, but replacing his dynamic presence on the wings would be no easy feat. It promises to be an interesting summer for the player and the club.
But the broader picture is of one of the Premier League’s best all-round attacking players in what is currently one of its lesser teams. Perhaps Raphinha’s legacy to Leeds will be keeping them up. Perhaps a man found near the top of individual charts now will be seen somewhere closer to the summit of the actual table next season.
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