Raphinha's big moment for Brazil was vintage Marcelo Bielsa-ball and a habit Leeds United need to rediscover

Watching Brazil was just like watching Leeds United for a moment or two on Sunday night.

Tuesday, 12th October 2021, 4:40 am
ATÉ LOGO - Raphinha showed his ability to bamboozle defenders en route to the byline for Brazil but Leeds United need him to do that to aid their attacking play. Pic: Getty

Raphinha did things with the ball that had Johan Mojica regretting his decision to become a full-back, got to the byline and sent a low, hard pass in the direction of the penalty spot.

What happened next was instantly forgettable, Neymar’s first touch more Leeds Powerleague than European Super League but, for Whites supporters, everything Raphinha did had a familiarity to it, not just because it was their man jinking and twirling his way into the final metre of the pitch.

Last season seven of Leeds’ 62 Premier League goals came from a player driving deep into the final third and pulling the ball back across goal. Rodrigo for Raphinha at Newcastle United, Raphinha for Jack Harrison against Sheffield United, Harrison finding Gjanni Alioski’s overlapping run so he could pass it across the area for Patrick Bamford to score - it was a comforting sight.

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Alioski split his time at Elland Road between high jinx and sprinting high up the pitch, either outside or inside Harrison, hurting teams when he got there.

Since Marcelo Bielsa arrived in England, Leeds have made a habit of getting to the byline. It’s where good things happen.

The most important and famous goal of perhaps the club’s entire existence outside the Premier League came from Luke Ayling’s pitch-length run to the byline and a ball pulled back for Pablo Hernandez to score. They were only repeating what they had done in training umpteen times, the very same trick they pulled against Millwall in Bielsa’s first season in charge.

Before doing what he did on Sunday night on the world stage, Raphinha practised at Burnley, making Charlie Taylor his unwitting, unwilling guinea pig in the lead-up to Bamford’s late equaliser.

Mojica can console himself with the knowledge that he is not the winger’s first, nor will he be the last. Gary Cahill, in particular, can empathise with the Elche man.

Raphinha can hurt teams in other ways - counter attacking at pace, clipping first-time balls over the top of defences or coming inside to have a left-foot crack from distance - but his last Leeds appearance before joining up with Brazil saw a little too much of that and much too little of the Leeds habit.

He was far from alone in going for the ambitious route against Watford, however. In the first half especially, Leeds’ attacking play was dominated by direct play, not in the hoofball sense but in a way that did not look half as simple as the kind of football Alioski and Harrison built a fruitful partnership on.

Given Watford simply handed the keys to the midfield to Kalvin Phillips, Mateusz Klich and Stuart Dallas, Leeds had little to lose from putting the ball in behind or taking the difficult passing option. They had such a presence in Watford’s half that they simply mopped up the second balls and could play from a base high up the pitch.

When you have a centre-half with Diego Llorente’s ability to pass through lines or drill a ball directly into the path of a winger, it is not a tool to be ignored and the Spaniard helped get the Whites into good positions with longer balls.

But they did not manage to gain a lot from it and too often eschewed what looked like the easy ball.

You had Raphinha looking for the run of Rodrigo, ignoring Jamie Shackleton, Klich ignoring Dallas to look for Rodrigo and Phillips looking to hit Raphinha with a worldie over Danny Rose.

With the pace and mobility Leeds possess, the ball over the top is always going to be an option and Daniel James threatened to steal in behind on a number of occasions, but the swerving aerial pass Raphinha tried twice worked out only once and even then Dallas wasn’t quite up with play to get on Rodrigo’s touch.

It wasn’t just the passing game that showed what could be called impatience, though. Leeds were shooting from distance, perhaps out of necessity having not got men beyond the full-backs to create goalscoring opportunities closer to goal, but Dallas had both James and Raphinha onside and in on Ben Foster had he slid the ball sideways instead of blasting it from 22 yards.

The second half saw fewer aerial balls from the hosts, there was a marked difference in the way they attacked, but they remained trigger happy around the edge of the box. Dallas, again, went alone having stormed forward to collect a loose ball and create a three v two, Raphinha and James once again free on either side to no avail as the midfielder shot and saw it blocked.

There was more keep-ball from Bielsa’s men, they kept it on the grass and worked their way forward passing in triangles, yet the result was still another shot from Dallas, as James and Junior Firpo both cried out for a pass.

With a failure to ensure chances ended in shots in and around the area highlighted as a concern during their winless run, it was maybe the case that Leeds were fully focused on ending as many forays upfield as possible with actions that prevented a loss of possession or a Watford counter attack.

And they won, so the decision making did not come back to haunt them.

Another consideration is that Firpo and James have known each other for an incredibly short amount of time, so the left-hand side of the pitch could not be expected to operate in the way it did last season. Previously, when Harrison got on the ball deep in enemy territory he would know where Alioski was even without looking. It was such a familiar sight that 30,000-plus knew where to look next when either man got the ball in the left channel.

That understanding and almost clockwork operation may come in time for the refreshed left flank. The right side had less of an excuse. In Ayling’s absence, Shackleton played behind Raphinha and, while the pair haven’t played a huge amount of competitive football together, the former told the YEP last week: “I think the more time you spend with him the more you can get used to his game.” But, as Mojica can now attest, Raphinha needs little help getting to the byline himself.

Against better teams than Watford, the unexpected, ambitious first-time stuff might not only fail to find its target or create a chance, it might lead to a costly loss of possession.

Leeds need to fall back into their habit and Raphinha needs to get to the byline, where good things can happen.