Leeds United's greatest winger appraises Raphinha as stats suggest young pair share Brazilian's confidence

It’s possible that Leeds United winger Raphinha has never been as influential or as confident as he is right now.

Thursday, 4th November 2021, 10:12 am
MAIN MAN - Leeds United winger Raphinha is their biggest attacking threat at present and his confidence levels appear higher than ever. Pic: Bruce Rollinson

The Brazilian was a big player for the Whites in his debut season, after a move from Rennes for a £17m fee that has moved past bargainous into scandalous territory, but lately he’s been the main man.

His influence is seen in the numbers, although they’re not particularly needed, not when it’s so obvious that an individual carries such a responsibility for a team’s threat and so much of their offensive play goes through him.

According to Opta, since his first Premier League start he has been involved directly in 19 goals for Leeds, a tally beaten by only one other non-striker, his good friend Bruno Fernandes.

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This term alone Raphinha has recorded more ‘shot-creating actions’ than any of his team-mates, scored more goals, produced more crosses, taken more corners and attempted more than twice as many shots as anyone else in Marcelo Bielsa’s side.

“He’s playing exceptionally well, he’s scoring goals and he’s the main player for us at the present time – long may it continue,” Eddie Gray, the club’s greatest ever winger, told the YEP.

“The rest of the players know they’ve got somebody who can create a chance and take a chance himself, even when they’re not playing well. We never played particularly well at Norwich but he comes up with a goal and sets the standard. He’s always got a goal in him and the ability to create chances.”

His confidence is seen when he dribbles.

“How do I know when a winger is feeling confident? When he goes by people,” said Gray.

“He’s that type of player, that’s his game running at people. That’s what he’s good at. He’s got the confidence to do it because of the talent he’s got. It’s quite simple, the boy’s a top-class player. He goes by people, he likes running at people and putting defenders under pressure.

“He can go both ways, inside or outside and he’s very effective on the right hand side of the pitch for us.”

Seb Carole, a former tricky winger for Leeds whose son Keenan is currently a tricky winger in the Leeds academy, agrees with the club legend.

"For attacking players or wide players you can tell straight away - their first touch will always be forward, they will try to be positive at all times," he told the YEP.

"For the most skilful ones you’ll see them try the most advanced tricks to get past defenders and will often try riskier pass and crosses. Watching a confident winger's decision making, it will be right most of the time, when he needs to pass or cross or shoot, play one touch or retain the ball.

"You look at our Raphinha today and Jadon Sancho and you can tell the difference. One just had an amazing spell with Brazil and is performing with Leeds so will be more productive. One is fully confident and the other looking for it to come back."

Dribbling is an artform that is being lost from the game according to Marcelo Bielsa.

Speaking in November 2020 after the death of Argentine idol Maradona, who would have been 61 on Sunday, Bielsa lamented the disappearance of players who express themselves by going by people.

“There is something that makes me really sad is that people like Maradona and Messi who showed their individual brilliance through dribbling, they are versions of players that stop repeating themselves,” he said.

“To dribble is to trick your opponent, show him you will do something and do another, it’s something you can’t teach. It belongs to every player and the talent they have. Traditionally how a player would learn to play was without any rules and with many hours, with a lot of situations to resolve. Everyone would find their own solution.”

Raphinha is still only 24 and a long way short of the kind of career that will bestow idol status upon him, but he is a player who shows his individual brilliance and his confidence when running with the ball.

One of the most-watched and celebrated moments of last season was his outrageous turning backheel nutmeg of Gary Cahill.

This season for Leeds he has managed to complete only a little over half of his attempted dribbles but he’s still going by people more than ever before.

According to Chris Taylor, the man behind LUFCDATA, Raphinha is completing take-ons at a greater rate [3.2] per 90 minutes this season than in any individual campaign since he became a 2016/17 top-flight regular with Vitória Guimarães in Portugal.

The Leeds man ranks fifth in the Premier League for successfully dribbling past opponents with 26 and he’s trying his luck, for want of a better phrase, more than anyone barring Adama Traore and Allan Saint-Maximin of Wolves and Newcastle United respectively.

Against Norwich City on Sunday, Raphinha dribbled past defenders no fewer than five times. And boy did Leeds need it. Their attacking play is not as it can be and Raphinha’s fellow forwards are struggling to unbalance defences, handing more and more responsibility to the man on the right wing.

Jack Harrison is beating players half the time when he takes them on, but he’s taken on half as many as Raphinha. Dan James has, thus far, recorded fewer successful take-ons per 90 minutes than both Luke Ayling and Jamie Shackleton, although the winger might find himself operating in less room and less able to build up momentum than a full-back running from deep.

Elsewhere in the squad there is confidence to be found, in the boldness of youth.

“When a young player comes into the first team they have that added part where they don’t assume the performance of the team,” said Bielsa last week.

“Nobody is going to make them responsible of the results that the team obtains when it comes to negative results and the positive contributions are especially valid.”

Teenager Joe Gelhardt, albeit in cameos that can give only a small sample size, is completing 8.8 successful take-ons per 90 minutes and, to date, has a 100 per cent success rate. The Wolves defence must take some of the credit, or blame, for that. And his fellow youngster, 20-year-old Crysencio Summerville, has used his brief involvement to attempt 2.6 take-ons per 90 minutes, with a 40 per cent success rate.

What the numbers cannot say tell us, of course, is how and why a dribbler was able to beat his man, how good the defender is in one-v-one situations and how balanced and ready he was when he was attacked. But having a go in any case, eschewing the safety of a pass and risking possession to take Leeds forward, in behind defences where they can hurt teams, takes confidence. Bielsa will see it as his responsibility to breathe that into his wingers.

Dribbling is part science - explosive pace, balance and strength are key - and that part can be worked on. Doing it repeatedly takes great physical capacity and, although Raphinha possesses great resources in that regard, it too can be augmented in training.

Dribbling is also artistry. It’s inspiration, genius and something that cannot be taught. In Raphinha Leeds have an athlete and an artist, a master craftsman and, right now, he’s inspired. His work is to be admired.