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Rafael leaves loved – and with a potential unfulfilled

August 5, 2015 Tags: Opinion 8 comments
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Picture the scene. Downtown Hong Kong, late July 2005. The mist rolls off Victoria Peak to shroud glass and concrete in a blanket of white-grey as it so often does in these parts. At one end of Hong Kong Football Club’s nondescript stadium, the glistening stands of the Jockey Club; the other, the sounds of Kowloon Bay. It’s muggy as the 2005 Nike Premier Cup final draws to a close. The small group of spectators adds little to the downbeat atmosphere.

In truth those watching the football are, as on so many occasions like this, predominantly scouts from the top European clubs. There is a small, but weighty contingent from Manchester United: Ruud van Nistelrooj, Bobby Charlton and chief scout Les Kershaw. Kershaw is busy in what will be one of his last tournaments as part of United’s youth setup. In addition to coaching duties with the young Reds, Kershaw is tasked with offering an opinion on the sponsor’s Player of the Tournament. His choice, the romantic’s option: Fluminense’s Rafael da Silva.

Rafael, alongside his brother Fabio, stood out as attacking full-backs –  “tearing up and down the wing” during the five-day tournament in Fluminense’s classic Brazilian shape. Kershaw wasted little time bringing his ‘discovery’ to Sir Alex Ferguson’s attention.

On the pitch Fluminense’s tight-knit 18-man squad collected the trophy – an 18-inch brushed steel goblet with an odly shiny crown – as reward for a 1-0 victory over Paris Saint Germain in the final. The win was no small feat in a campaign that started with regional qualification and ended with more than 20 teams competing in the finals tournament. Victory was secured despite losing to the French outfit earlier in the group stages.

Almost a decade on Rafael departs Old Trafford in a £2 million deal with Olympique Lyonnais that takes the Brazilian to France for the next four years. It is a transfer that proffers mixed emotions for the player, who has limited prospects under Louis van Gaal, and United’s legion support. After eight years at Old Trafford, Rafael has found simpatico with many supporters. He fulfilled only part of his potential.

“Fluminense were one of the best sides in the tournament. But the Da Silva twins stood out. They were quite outstanding,” said Kershaw of the summer 2005 tournament.

“You didn’t have to be a special scout to notice that they were really, really good. I suggested Rafael as the Player of the Tournament. In the end the sponsors went for an Argentinian lad but I was very interested in getting the Da Silva boys to Old Trafford. I told Sir Alex Ferguson to have a look at them.

“They remind me of two little whippets. These two stood out straight away. What impressed me most was the way that, when they got knocked down, they just got straight back up again and got on with it. You didn’t have to be a special scout to notice them. I rang the manager and said, ‘There are twins here who are just unbelievable.'”

United’s Brazilian-based scout, John Calvert-Toulmin, was assigned the task of following-up the club’s interest and a deal was arranged with Fluminense, although neither of the da Silva twins could play in England until they turned 18. Rafael made his first team début as a substitute against Newcastle United in August 2008. It was a touch over three years since the twins collected their medals in Hong Kong. The complicated transfer meant that neither had played competitive football in over a year.

In pre-season 2008/9 Fabio sat out much of the training programme with a shoulder injury. It would become a recurring theme. Rafael impressed though, featuring in United’s 1-1 draw with Celtic in front of a raucous home crowd. “He was absolutely brilliant. I was delighted an 18-year-old could do that,” crowed Ferguson in the aftermath. Just weeks into his United career, with Gary Neville having featured just once the season before, Rafael looked set to become the club’s first-choice full-back. Possibly for years to come.

History recounts a different story of course. For much of the past seven seasons the Brazilian has struggled to command a first team place. Injury and inconsistency were ongoing factors in Rafael’s time at United; the perception that he remained a player who could not be trusted lingered. All three limited Rafael to just 170 appearances for the club over eight years. Just once, in Sir Alex’ last campaign at Old Trafford, did Rafael play more than 20 Premier League games in a season. It remains peak Rafael – a season-long glimpse at the player he could have become.

In the intervening years Rafael ‘got’ United, becoming immersed in the club’s rich fan culture and deep history. He remained a player in sync with supporters, found more than once in the cafés of central Manchester and not just the Cheshire commuter belt that is haven to most United players. The simpatico was real, although the saturated nature of social media amplifies the louder, more impatient, members of United’s varied global supporter base. Fans retained sympathy with the player to the end; albeit one who was too often a frustration. It is a sentiment shared.

“I want to thank Manchester United fans for all the love during those 8 years,” he wrote in leaving for France this week. “Since I signed with the club I lived incredible moments, after all it was 8 years wearing the shirt of one of the biggest clubs of the world. Thank you.”

On the pitch Rafael leaves memories of wholly committed performances, two fine goals at Anfield and the Emirates, and a tenacity that did not always serve the player well. The full-back’s now infamous argument with Carlos Tevez in 2010 was a visceral interpretation of his commitment to United’s cause. At the other end of that scale: a red card against Bayern Munich in that season’s Champions League quarter-final that, in part at least, contributed to the club’s exit.

There was the good too. Plenty of it. Pace, bravery, and a cross that, if not always on target, could be whipped in with genuine menace. He is a better defender than many offer him credit for as well; a victim both of following Neville into United’s number two shirt and of the lingering notion that Rafael is a player with a mistake, or more likely a card, waiting to happen.

That sense of immaturity kept the player out of the 2009 Champions League final in Rome, with John O’Shea appearing at right-back, and the 2011 match at Wembley. His brother, Fabio, started, with Rafael sat in the stands. Rafael leaves with a sense of destiny unfulfilled.

There should have been more. In 2008/9, his first full season in England, Rafael made 28 appearances, for a while supplanting both Neville and Wes Brown in the United side. “Gary Neville and Wes Brown are England’s best right full-backs,” said Ferguson in December 2008. “Gary and Wes have a little problem because this young boy Rafael has really taken off. It is rare for someone to come through like he has done.”

By the season’s end it was O’Shea, who made 54 appearances during the campaign, who commanded the Brazilian’s place. Neville’s retirement the following season did not solidify Rafael’s position in Ferguson’s team. He was a player still not fully trusted – or fully fit. It is a summary of eight years at Old Trafford; one that Van Gaal could no longer tolerate.

Double exposure

April 26, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 11 comments

On Sunday night’s Match of the Day 2 a man previously mooted as Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor spoke candidly on his admiration for what he believes is the makings of Ferguson’s next and possibly final great side. Despite Everton defending resolutely for 83 minutes against Manchester United at the weekend, David Moyes admitted that the Reds were far superior to the rejuvenated Merseysiders, and that despite the criticism United’s squad has received this year this could be the start of something special for United.

United’s current crop of players may not be collectively the most talented side Sir Alex has ever had at his disposal but it is not talentless. United’s current league and European standings are evident of this. However, United is a team in transition, this isn’t a side that could challenge for honours at home and abroad for years to come; not as it is anyway. With players such as Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Wes Brown edging towards the end of their wonderful careers now is the time for a new generation of ‘Fergie Fledglings’ to make themselves known.

Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández has been a sensation but there are others who will also be charged with keeping the silverware conveyor belt running during the final years of Ferguson’s reign at Old Trafford and then post-retirement

Similar to Chicharito, the Da Silva twins arrived on the scene as complete unknown quantities. In their pre-season début against Peterborough United at London Road in 2008, Rafael played the full 90 while Fabio came on for the second half. There was an immediate WOW factor about these two Brazilian twins, who demonstrated pace, power and an unquenchable thirst for the game. This was a friendly and not the Champions League final but first impressions are always important.

Rafael in particular took the ‘bull by the horns’ and in his first season made a total of 21 starts – no bedding in period just straight in at the deep end, the United way. Rafael also showcased his ability as an all-round footballer, scoring a terrific volley against Arsenal at the Emirates and a several assists to boot.

Fabio’s progression has proved to be less rapid, making only one start in his début season, with a second season hampered by injury. However this season Fabio has come into his own and against Everton was one of United’s best players – solid at the back and a threat going forward. Albeit Everton’s attacks were sporadic but when the game began to open up in the second half Fabio dealt superbly with Tim Cahill, Leighton Baines and Victor Anichebe. The Brazilian resisted temptation to dive into challenges, which his brother is often guilty of and did not get flustered in pressing conditions.

In 2008 when Rafael began to break into the first team the word from inside Carrington was that Brazilian scouts rated Fabio above Rafael. However, Fabio’s first forays into first team football could not justify the tag, although his talent was evident. Perhaps Rafael had taken to the demands and pace of English football better than Fabio; maybe fans would have seen Fabio in a better light in other circumstances. Meanwhile, Rafael was already battling for a position which was well and truly up for grabs with Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Gary Neville suffering with injury. Fabio, however, had the not-so-easy task of deposing the ever-present Patrice Evra.

Credit is due to Fabio though as he has never let his head drop despite limited opportunities and this season he has been rewarded. Keen reserves watchers will have noted that when Fabio plays he is often deployed in an attacking position and not at right or left-back. Clearly, Sir Alex has recognised the problem posed by Evra and wants to experiment with Fabio’s ability to play elsewhere on the park.

The da Da Silva’s are both fantastic all round players too – at United the chances of becoming a first team main-stay are greatly enhanced with versatility. In this season’s FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal at Old Trafford Ferguson started the twins on the wings, their attacking prowess was again noted with Fabio notching his second goal of the season. The duo caused endless problems for Bacary Sagna and would have given Fergie a big boost in that he can now utilise their talent all over the pitch.

Ferguson surely sees Rafael as United’s long-term right-back, with Neville gone, Brown likely to follow suit in the summer and O’Shea entering his thirties. However, Fabio’s future remains unclear, despite great form and impressive displays. With Evra signing a new long term deal this season, Fabio’s role is unlikely to be a left-back for the time being, unless the Brazilian can unseat his more experienced colleague.

For those United supporters who watched BBC’s ‘United’ on Sunday night Duncan Edwards supposedly told Bobby Charlton that he wasn’t “given my place in the team” he “stole it”. Whether or not Edwards said this, it is not hard to imagine the attitude; it has been the same for many United greats since. Fabio seems to own a hunger akin to Edwards’ that will serve him very well.

Certainly, using Fabio as a reserve full-back is a waste of his talent. Perhaps then we will see Fabio deployed in a more advanced position more regularly next season as the manager attempts to mould the Brazilian into a solid attacking outlet that can fill in at left or right-back when needed.

With a 19th title on the horizon it is wise to take a second before criticising this current squad. After all, a team in transition has made the European Cup semi-final and is six points clear in the domestic league with four to play. In the last transitional phase United won two trophies between 2004 and 2007, none of which were the league title.

Despite turbulent times on and off the pitch Chicharito, the Da Silva’s, together with Nani and Valencia staking their claim, the future could be brighter than you think.

Rafael’s promise a blessing and a curse

January 25, 2011 Tags: , Opinion 14 comments

Despite his crossing ability, Gary Neville has been more a full-back who can attack than a proper attacking player in the mould of Cafu. Yet, Rafael da Silva’s emergence this season has allowed Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps for the first time in his Manchester United career, to depend on his right full-back to provide genuine creativity.

And while it is plain, even to the most casual of fans, that United lacks a creative central player, Ferguson clearly recognises the issue. United’s tactical focus this season has been to flood the attacking central midfield area with numbers – a ‘quantity over quality’ approach.

United’s base system of 4-4-2 cum 4-2-2-2 cum 4-2-4-0 has born some fruit in the home games against Blackburn Rovers, Sunderland and Birmingham City. An argument can be made though that United’s new 4-4-2 is as much about providing a platform to best utilise the Brazilian full-back as it is about masking the lack of a playmaker.

Rafael has noticeably matured this season even if he remains hot-headed for a defender. United’s system plays to his strengths – by playing a nominal 4-4-2 Rafael has a wide man ahead who provides cover. And because the right winger, usually Nani, is encouraged to cut in, Rafael also has space when in possession.

The twenty-year-old is a genuine attacking threat. Rafael’s blistering pace is buttressed by excellent close control and dribbling. The Brazilian’s passing and crossing are technically proficient even if his decision-making lets him down. Age and experience should improve the timing and reading of the game.

On paper, Rafael’s progress is exciting. Surely, one more avenue of attack will make United even more exciting. However, one must not forget that Patrice Evra is also very attacking.

Take infantry as an analogy – organised by ‘fireteams,’ the idea is to have one soldier charge and gain ground while his or her partner covers the runner. Defence in football operates on the same idea. One-to-one battles are not desirable – once a defender is beaten, the attacker has a free shot at goal.

Football managers have thus always sought a spare man at the back to provide additional cover. For example, one can play three centre-backs to counter two strikers. Or in four-man defensive systems, managers often have a full-back or a midfielder stay behind and form a defensive unit with the centre-backs.

With Rafael and Evra both charging ahead, United faces an undesirable two versus two at the back, especially against teams playing 4-4-2. Even against systems that nominally feature only one striker, such as 4-2-3-1, leaving two men back is risky because of the opposition player ‘in the hole.’

Compensation comes at a cost – a central midfield player can drop deep and provide cover, but the team then gets outmanned in the middle.

United’s response has been interesting. Wayne Rooney has been playing very deep of late and that has ensured United does not get overrun in central midfield. But in the recent away game at White Hart Lane, United suffered simply because Rooney had a bad day.

Indeed, therein lies the problem. United’s new 4-4-2 is a great idea but it can only be a temporary fix. Ferguson’s system asks the midfielders, and one of the strikers, to essentially play two roles. It is arguable that Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher are playing badly this season simply because they are being asked to do too much.

The system works fine when United can hold the ball and play a high line. Yet, in less fluid games the team gets stretched and players find themselves covering a too much ground and running themselves into submission.

With a marquee signing looking increasingly unlikely United will have to make do with existing players. If the answer doesn’t come in the market perhaps one solution to this dilemma is tactical, by deploying a 4-2-3-1, with Rooney as a central attacking midfielder rather than striker. While Rooney has never been – and never will be – a proper playmaker beggars cannot be choosers.

Another, more familiar, option is to play Rooney as lone striker in a variant of 4-5-1. This less fluid system allows players to domore specialised – hence easier – roles. With central midfielders in their proper place the Reds will hold onto the ball more easily, which of course relieves pressure and further reduces the chance of anyone being caught out of position.

United’s 4-4-2 is an exciting, fluid system. It has the potential to do some real damage as Blackburn found out the hard way. But one cannot persist with a system that puts intolerable pressure on central midfield for the possibility of great football.

We must keep in mind the dictum that sound defence wins championships.

The defence has it

January 17, 2011 Tags: , , , , Opinion 23 comments

Should Manchester United complete a 19th domestic title come May it will have little to do with star player Wayne Rooney. Nor, though influential, will Nani take the plaudits. Ditto Dimitar Berbatov, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Anderson. Much as United’s attacking players can take overdue credit for becoming the division’s the second highest goalscorers, it is the defence that will win it.

Indeed, so imperious have captain Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand been this season that there is surely no better central defensive partnership in world football. Coupled with Patrice Evra’s status as the finest left-back on the planet, Rafael da Silva’s rapid progress and Edwin van der Sar’s assured composure and United may well land the title despite a paucity of creative options.

United’s strengths and weaknesses were exposed against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, with the Reds watertight in defence despite playing the final quarter with 10 men. At the same time, United created too few chances to win at White Hart Lane as the visitors drew an eighth Premier League match on the road this season.

No wonder Sir Alex Ferguson was fulsome in his praise of his back five, whose control over Rafael van der Vaart, Peter Crouch, Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon was almost total. That Spurs managed just two strikes on target is symptomatic of just how well marshalled Vidic’s colleagues are this season.

“The kind of pressure we were under were just long balls into the box really,” claimed Ferguson today.

“With Ferdinand and Vidic as your centre-backs you know you can cope with that. They were fantastic. The whole back four did really, really well.

“In the context of Tottenham’s home record this season and the performances they have given, we have got to take it as a good point for us.”

Even Rafael, harshly sent off for a second bookable offence with twenty minutes to go, drew praise from colleagues for another mature performance that largely kept Bale at check.

Should United win the title by that single point gained in London then Ferguson will be have much to celebrate. Yet, it is not a single season transformation in United’s play that has seen the Reds become so secure at the back. Critics can – and do – point to the fundamental change in United’s style over the past decade, from the side that scored three against Barcelona, twice, in the swashbuckling 1999 season, to the often overly cautious outfit we see today.

While United did not exactly morphed Jose Mourinho’s Inter at Camp Nou circa Spring 2010, there have been times when the Reds have performed a passable impression. It is not the ‘United way’ perhaps but one that fans have become accustomed too over the past decade.

Part of United’s metamorphosis over the years is down to Ferguson’s obsession with performing in Europe. Largely it has worked. Yet, much of the Reds’ style this season is surely down to the dearth of attacking creative talent in the squad, with Rooney too often anonymous, Nani still inconsistent, Antonio Valencia injured and Paul Scholes’ legs finding no friend in father time.

It showed against Spurs, with the Reds managing just seven shots – on target or not – in the match. No enough for the pretenders to Chelsea’s thrown. Similar sterile performances have been evident in many of United’s away fixtures at home and abroad this season.

“We didn’t bother them too much,” admitted Ferguson

“We had one or two good opportunities at times when we got to the last third of the field but we just didn’t quite have the cutting edge. In the second half Anderson attacked the back four four times and maybe his selection of pass or a shot on goal would have been better.”

It is, always has been and one wonders whether it always will be the Brazilian’s principal failing. For a player so widely touted – including by Ferguson himself – as the natural successor to Scholes, Anderson does not score, nor create goals or even retain possession more than three-quarters of the time.

In defence United’s resources will be stretched in coming games, with Rafael set to miss at least one match, possibly more, after the Football Association charged the 20-year-old defender with improper conduct today. Little wonder after the youngster both disputed referee Mike Dean’s erroneous decision and then refused to promptly leave the field.

“It was Mary Decker and Zola Budd,” said Spurs’ manager Harry Redknapp in the Brazilian’s defence.

“He was just running and he has clipped Benoît’s heels. He has not broken his stride and stuck a leg out, saying ‘I’ll trip him’. He was trying to get out of the way.”

But with Rafael out, John O’Shea injured and Wes Brown all but forgotten at Old Trafford, Ferguson may turn to the Brazilian’s brother Fabio, who featured in United reserves’ 8-0 win over Bury this week. Often touted as the more talented sibling, Fabio’s progress has been hampered by Evra’s outstanding form and persistent injuries.

With Rafael set to miss fixtures against Birmingham City and potentially Blackpool in the coming week, Fabio’s ability to integrate into United’s outstanding back-five will be severely tested. As will United’s title credentials.

Wrong footed full-backs

December 8, 2010 Tags: , , Opinion 17 comments

Wrong footed full-backs have always existed of course – Phil Neville, Dennis Irwin and John O’Shea – right-footed players, have often been deployed on the left. It didn’t matter all that much. Defenders did very little but defend, especially in the Premier League where the classical, rigid 4-4-2 has been the formation du jour. But football evolves.

Consider two teams playing plain old 4-4-2. Each player, apart from the full-backs, has a corresponding opposition player directly marking him – strikers on central defenders, defensive midfielders on on attacking, for example. Full-backs therefore are often the only players with additional time and space.

Indeed, the Guardian’s Jonathan Wilson considers the full-back “the most important position in football.” As ludicrous as the statement might sound, full-backs do enough damage to warrant a new breed of players such as Park Ji-Sung and Dirk Kuyt whose raison d’etre is ostensibly to mark full-backs.

Tactics have progressed though and even in the Premier League, teams rarely plays the old fashioned 4-4-2 these days. Those teams that play 4-4-2 do, often do so with a modern twist.

Indeed, a myriad of factors including the increasing athleticism and the liberalisation of offside laws have stretched the field of play. Teams rarely play midfielders in a straight line; they are staggered across defensive, central and attacking stratums. 4-4-2 uses three bands of players; modern formations such as 4-2-3-1 use four.

Wide midfielders in the classical 4-4-2 become wingers who are deployed higher up on the pitch in four-band systems. This is because wide midfielders, even the fittest of them, can’t “bomb up and down that bloody wing” all day, as Sir Alex Ferguson might put it.

Midfielders in four-band systems are also forced to become much more functional and less box-to-box. Darren Fletcher, for example, might regularly step up from the defensive midfield stratum to the central midfield stratum but even a player as fit as the Scot can’t be expected to do this ad infinitum without rendering himself useless by the sixtieth minute.

So, with direct opposition, do fullbacks become less potent? Yes and no. Defensive wingers, amazingly speedy players like Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon and modern wingers such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and Lionel Messi limit full-backs’ forward forages.

Patrice Evra and Rafael da Silva, who are more often found in the opposition half against Premier League minnows, limit forward runs against players like Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben to deny the opposition space behind.

Today, wingers are more prone to drift in field than ever. These out-to-in movements can be extremely dangerous but they do narrow the field of play. To make sure that the field of play doesn’t become overly narrow, which of course makes the opposition’s defensive job easier, full-backs now provide the once traditional width that wingers provided.

Arguably, the most important job of wide men is crossing, which is why wingers have traditionally been “correct-footed”. Fabio da Silva, whose opportunities have been limited because of injuries and Evra’s lack of them, is interesting in that he plays as a left full-back despite being clearly right footed.

Fabio is capable with his left foot although he seems to use it only as a last resort. The uneasiness remains a worry.

But the apprehension is more than offset by the intriguing prospect brought up by his wrong-footedness. With an abundance of modern wingers, most of them wrong-footed also, Fabio might very well have an advantage over left footed full-backs such as Evra. When facing a player like Messi, Fabio can tackle with his dominant foot. Crucially the angle of tackle in such situations will be natural to Fabio and the tackles will be more clean than those made by left footed players.

The tendency towards the right also brings up interesting possibilities vis-a-vis team movements. Fabio attacks the box almost as regularly as he goes for the byline. When attacking the box, his right-footedness becomes an asset. After all, despite nominally being a defender, Fabio was the top scorer in the U-17 World Cup in 2007.

To indulge this movement, United’s left winger can move laterally towards the middle. This particular set of movements comes easily to both Park and Wayne Rooney. And one of the central or defensive midfielders behind will move to the left flank providing the width from deep.

This, of course, requires a left-footed and athletically gifted central midfielder who can do a job on the flank.

One wonders if United has someone like that on the book?

The fight for right back

August 2, 2010 Tags: , , , Opinion 44 comments

The 2006-2007 season saw Manchester United regain the Premier League title for the first time in four years. It also marked Gary Neville’s most recent appearance in the PFA team of the year. Near the end of the campaign Neville suffered a long-term injury, which kept him out of consistent first team action for nearly 18 months.

Since then United has yet to settle on a starting right back, with four men competing for the spot – a problem Sir Alex Ferguson is yet to resolve.

During the following Premier and Champions League double winning season Wes Brown took a hold of the position, with 52 appearances in all competitions. Throughout the season the Longsight-born defender was solid and even popped up with some major contributions going forward in the form of a goal against Liverpool and an assist in the Champions League final against Chelsea.

After getting off to a decent start in the 2008-2009 Brown was hit by another major injury, just as Neville returned from his layoff, allowing teenager Rafael Da Silva to make the first team. Despite the return of United’s captain and the Brazilian phenomenon’s rise to prominence it was in fact John O’Shea who laid claim to the slot, starting most of United’s big games in the position that season.

Last season saw a plethora of injuries to the United backline and everyone from Ritchie De Laet to Darren Fletcher got a chance in the right back role. Now as the Red Devils kick off a new campaign the right back question is still unresolved, with few clues about who will start against Newcastle United on August 16th.

Many supporters are campaigning for youth, with Rafael promoted as the man most likely to make the role his own. Sir Alex has shown lots of confidence in Rafael in the past, starting the 20-year-old in big games, most notably the second leg against Bayern Munich in last season’s Champions League quarter final. Rafael was infamously sent off that night, an event that led to the Germans winning the tie.

But Rafael’s promise showed in how well the player performed in direct competition against Franc Ribéry before the red card, getting forward regularly and keeping the lively French midfielder quiet for the most part.

The criticism of Rafael is his defensive naïvety. The Brazilian sometimes gets caught too high up the pitch and is forced into making poor decisions like the one against Munich and earlier in the season when he conceded a penalty against Manchester City. But Rafael has improved in the tackle over the past year and if there is still a major question mark defensively then the youngster is undoubtedly United’s best right back moving forward.

O’Shea represents the cautious option, with little pace and a tendency towards the lethargic in possession. Defensively Ferguson will have very few concerns though. The Irishman proved himself in the position throughout the 08-09 season and despite a slow start during the early part of his United career, O’Shea has become a fans’ favourite as a result of his work ethic and acceptance to play any role required.

Brown, however, showed himself a liability at centre back last season, and when he did get a chance at right back the brilliance demonstrated in United’s double winning season had disappeared. Brown is another player who Ferguson is delighted to have in the squad because of his versatility. It will still be a surprise to see the 30-year-old start at right back considering it has been more than two years since the role was his.

Then there is club captain Neville, who is likely playing in his last season with United. His playing time will probably reflect that fact. Neville is a good influence on the younger players at the club but the frequency with which the 35-year-old is skinned by mediocre left wingers is worrying. The ultimate pro may just have to accept a bit part role with United this coming season.

In the end the right back position will probably be fought over by O’Shea and Rafael, barring any injuries. While the romantic choice is the Brazilian, the most likely outcome is that he will share the role with O’Shea based on the opponent, with Neville providing cover against weaker opposition.

Nev signs but Rafael’s time has come

April 30, 2010 Tags: , Opinion 11 comments

Gary Neville, Manchester United’s 35-year-old club captain, has signed a one year contract extension that will keep the defender at Old Trafford until 2011. The extension is just reward for Neville, who has forced his way back into the United side after more than 18 months on the sidelines. The right-back has appeared 597 times for United.

“We’ve agreed a contract with Gary Neville for another year,” Sir Alex Ferguson confirmed Friday morning.

“We’ve been working on it for a couple of weeks now. We’re delighted with that. We think he deserves it because his contribution to the club has been fantastic.

“As I’ve said time and again about certain players, they make a career out of their will and determination to do it. Gary is one of those players.”

Neville is now fifth on Manchester United’s all-time appearances list behind only Ryan Giggs, Bobby Charlton, Paul Scholes and Bill Foukes. The new deal will take the Bury-born player past 600 appearances for the club. It’s a remarkable achievement given the long-term nature of the player’s injuries in recent seasons.

“The amazing thing he has achieved is coming back from a year-and-a-half out in his thirties,” added Ferguson.

“To get to the level he is playing at today is astonishing. The man is doing it because he wants to do it, he has the determination and drive within himself not to give in on his career.

“He’s getting the rewards for that because his performances levels have been outstanding at an important time for the club.”

Even so many supporters will point to Neville’s ineffective outings against Bayern Munich in Germany and Chelsea at Old Trafford recently, when Florent Malouda and Franck Ribéry exposed the veteran’s relative lack of mobility.

Neville, first choice at right-back since the turn of the year, cannot continue indefinitely though. Indeed, the new deal should offer teenager Rafael da Silva an opportunity to learn from a player who has surpassed the bounds of his naturally ability.

That the Brazilian’s talent exceeds that of 85-time capped Neville is a valid argument, even if Rafael’s maturity is years behind Neville’s at a similar age. The Bury-born defender’s fundamental understanding of his position thrust the right-back into the United and England team at 18. Rafael, by contrast, still has a lot to learn.

Neville’s new deal comes with a warning though. Should inconsistent performance levels continue, it is Rafael who will take the right-back mantle sooner, rather than later.

“I think experience could also be misinterpreted in the sense of the ability to play in games,” warned Ferguson.

“You could keep a player with great experience and not play him. I don’t think Gary would enjoy that, I don’t think Scholes, Giggs or van der Sar would either. They want to play, nobody more than Gary.”

Neville has appeared 27 times in all competitions for United this season, with Rafael chosen on 16 occasions, Wes Brown 29 times and John O’Shea 18.

Early season form and fitness will decide which of these players will begin 2010/11 in the red shirt.

Neville’s competitive nature ensures he wants the role. Rafael’s development dictates that the Brazilian needs more games next season.

Neville’s honours
Premier League: (7) 1995-96, 1996-97, 1998-99, 1999-2000, 2000-01, 2002-03, 2006-07, 2008-09
FA Cup: (3) 1996, 1999, 2004
League Cup: (2) 2006, 2010
FA Community Shields: (3) 1996, 1997, 2008
Champions League: (2) 1999, 2008
Intercontinental Cup: (1) 1999
FIFA Club World Cup: (1) 2008

O brother, where art thou?

October 29, 2009 Tags: , Just for fun No comments

Damn! We’re in a tight spot. At least referee Chris Foy was on Tuesday night when the Merseyside-born official booked the wrong da Silva brother in United’s Carling Cup victory over Barnsley. Foy showed Fabio a yellow card for an 83rd minute tackle on Jamal Campbell-Ryce, when his twin Rafael should have received the caution.

Sir Alex Ferguson has long said that he cannot tell the brothers apart. Off the pitch Fabio wears a wedding ring, having married his school sweetheart, Barbara, last year.

United has contacted the FA to point out the case of mistaken identity. Fabio, sent off in the previous Carling Cup round against Wolverhampton Wanderers, will likely see the caution removed from his record.

As the song goes … Viva Da Silva, Viva Da Silva, running up the pitch, don’t know which is which, Viva Da Silva.