Explosive Leeds United star continues to prove he can play anywhere amid fierce physical battle at Burnley - Graham Smyth's Verdict
Last week, a wonderful piece of first-person story telling emerged via The Players’ Tribune, bearing the byline of Leeds United winger Raphinha.
The media outlet allows players to put their experiences entirely in their own words, opening a door and allowing fans to take a liberal stroll around the lives of their heroes.
Among revelations about his admiration for Thierry Henry, his brotherhood with Bruno Fernandes and the untold severity of the damage Fernandinho caused to his leg at the Etihad, Raphinha explained how life in a favela shaped him.
He talked about the várzea tournaments, community-organised matches on dusty, sandy pitches, watched by gang bosses and played to a soundtrack of shotguns and fireworks.
“That’s why I always say that if you can play in the várzea games, you can play anywhere,” said the 24-year-old, endearing himself further with a fanbase already madly in love after almost a year of his thrilling, tireless work on the pitch.
“I’m still very proud that I played in so many várzea tournaments. And honestly, I loved it. Those games made me so tough. When I play now, I want to be booed. I want the pressure and the intimidation. That’s what gets me going.”
Turf Moor has been home to Premier League football for the past six seasons but the ground and its atmosphere remain largely untarnished by the top-flight corporate comfort found at bigger, shinier grounds that can be found not so far away.
There is no school like the old school and Sean Dyche’s Burnley, on their own turf and in front of their own fans, can certainly provide an English footballing education not found in many Premier League grounds. Favela football it is not but, with four minutes to go in a bruising, physical Turf Moor contest that at times tiptoed daintily along a line between competitive and violent, the pressure was on Leeds United, so Raphinha got going, bringing violence of another kind.
He jinked in off the right flank with a deftness and speed that left Charlie Taylor stumbling and whipped in a low ball that Ben Mee’s desperate block could only divert to Jamie Shackleton, the youngster’s shot also hitting Mee before Patrick Bamford stuck out a toe to score.
As England’s newest striker jogged off to celebrate making it 1-1 late on, Raphinha appeared behind him with an affectionate flying kick. Built different, they might say.
Leeds struck transfer-deadline-day gold with the Brazilian last summer and the little bit of magic he produced to help rescue a point at Burnley was a reminder, as another window comes to a close.
Speaking after the game, Marcelo Bielsa reiterated his and Leeds’ belief that further signings are unlikely before Tuesday’s 11pm deadline.
It doesn’t take an awful lot to make Leeds United’s depth a talking point and a pair of positive Covid-19 tests was all that was necessary to expose just how small Bielsa’s senior squad is, by design.
While the first team he was able to field without Mateusz Klich and new signing Junior Firpo suggested there’s little to worry about.
Into the line-up came Spanish international duo Diego Llorente and Rodrigo so, while it wasn’t quite Bielsa’s strongest side, it wasn’t far off.
Of his nine substitutes, however, seven were under the age of 22 and only two of those seven have anything in the way of serious first-team experience. By comparison, Dyche’s Burnley’s bench featured only two under the age of 29 and boasted 1,529 Premier League appearances. Leeds’ replacements scraped together 127 between them.
Yet before the game only one of the two managers was talking about how useful it would be to get new players in before the deadline, and it wasn’t Bielsa.
He too is different and sees things differently. In this game, control of which swung back and forth between the two teams, Leeds appeared to make a good number of mistakes in possession that allowed Burnley to make a real scrap of it.
Bielsa would later say that might well be your take on it and you might be correct, but what he saw was Burnley forcing mistakes from a team spending much more time on the ball.
Leeds saw a lot of it early on, trying to get Jack Harrison and Raphinha, who had greater joy and influence, away down the flanks or hitting cross-field balls for Patrick Bamford to fight for.
But it was in allowing the game to become a fight that they lost control and sloppy play looked like the root cause, sometimes unforced by the hosts. Rodrigo had already been guilty of giving the ball away carelessly, giving Kalvin Phillips plenty of fire-fighting to do, before team-mates began to join in.
As Leeds invited pressure, the Burnley press began to result in turnovers and challenges that, in turn, led to free-kicks and corners.
It got messy and scrappy. Burnley dialled up the physicality, Ashley Barnes catching Stuart Dallas with a reckless kick as the Ulsterman cleared. Barnes joined Josh Brownhill in the book for that one and, before the half was done, Mee met the same fate for a reckless lunge on Bamford.
In between those two tackles Phillips exacted a measure of revenge with a needless barge on Barnes, but Leeds were finally hurting Burnley in better ways, exploiting the space left in wide areas to counter attack relentlessly towards the end of the half, albeit without reward.
The second half had more of the rough stuff - Barnes caught Phillips on the ankle but escaped another card - and more time on the ball for Leeds, who tried to play quickly only to continue conceding possession.
And then Burnley took over for a spell, encouraged by a couple of attacks that saw them pass their way into long-range shooting positions to threaten Illan Meslier’s goal.
Their spell peaked with a goal - James Tarkowski’s header from a corner kept out by a combination of Meslier’s fingertips and his woodwork, Burnley persisting until Matthew Lowton’s shot went in via the boot of Chris Wood.
Job done, it seemed. Burnley sat back and seemed intent on defending their box, which they did well for the most part, until Raphinha got going and Leeds got a point.
There won’t be another Raphinha on deadline day this year. Business that good does not come around too often. He has already proven well worth the £17m or so outlay and despite being a bonus addition, someone Bielsa was not banking on but simply an opportunity Victor Orta was alert to as the deadline approached last summer, he is already of vital importance to Leeds.
Bielsa joked this week that his lengthy description of the winger’s abilities would have been ridiculed by his friends for verbosity, but players like Raphinha, who go off like fireworks to rattle defences, are an exciting topic of conversation.
So much more will be said and written about him too, as his career develops and he adds Brazilian international football to his already rich and colourful life story. He can play anywhere, but he plays for Leeds United.