Back in March, when Brazil beat France, many of us remarked how Dunga’s side showed an increased commitment to building from the back, to using triangles and short combinations to work the ball down the length of the pitch. It was a welcome sign.

The sign was taken down just a few short days later against Chile in one of the most nervous, “No, no, I don’t want the ball, you take it” matches you’ll ever see.

On the other hand, La Roja has become something of a specialist at making the bigger footballing nations look hapless. With that in mind, Brazil entered the Copa America still looking to retain possession and utilize the midfield with greater purpose and commitment. And sometimes it worked. In fact, Brazil was able to construct some truly beautiful team goals.

But to quote the immortal words of one Michael Gerard Tyson, “Everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth.”[1]

You could see it in those anxious last few minutes against Venezuela, or pretty much the entire second half against Paraguay. The moment things got tense, the moment the other team stepped higher up the pitch and started squeezing out space, the moment the tempo of the match went up, Brazil forgot their game plan. Out went their commitment to building from the back. Out went their commitment to short combinations and passing triangles. In went nervous clearances, excessive fouling, and a sudden tendency to dribble down blind alleys.

That’s the funny thing about commitment. Anyone can commit to something. But commitment is not enough. At the end of the day, very few leopards can change their spots into stripes, no matter how much they might want to.

The fact of the matter is that Brazil fields too many players who simply can’t keep their commitment when it counts. Fred, Fernandinho, and Elias couldn’t.[2]  Willian couldn’t. Tardelli couldn’t. David Luiz and Miranda couldn’t. Jefferson couldn’t.[3]  Firmino and Coutinho probably have the mentality, but neither have the experience, self-belief, or cachet to enforce that mentality on others yet.

And they have a coach who, despite the fact that he could do it as a player, simply doesn’t seem to prioritize it enough as a manager.

Commitment is not enough. To become a team that’s truly comfortable on the ball, that truly seeks to control the flow and tempo of the match, that truly believes it’s more skilled than its opponent, and maintains those attributes even when punched in the mouth, you have to field an entire roster of players who don’t need to make a commitment.

Instead, you need a roster of players who know no other way.

Unfortunately, the pickings are slim. Wish as we might, neither Didi nor Zito, Gerson nor Cerezo are walking through that door. Even Dunga isn’t walking through that door…not without a homemade sweater on, anyway.[4]

But the well isn’t completely dry. There are candidates out there who might be able to restore Brazil’s midfield to something approaching its former glory. Most of them are raw, unformed blocks of clay at the moment, but the potential is there. Despite being played too high up the pitch, and showing a surprising level of passivity, I remain enthusiastic about Coutinho’s development.[5]   Oscar probably isn’t the answer at the #10 position, but I’m convinced he’s the best possible partner for Luis Gustavo…at least until I see proof otherwise.   Casemiro, Lucas Silva, Lucas Lima and others all need longer look-ins. In fact, there’s a decent chance that, come 2018, we could be trotting out a midfield consisting of starters for three out of the last four European Cup winners.

But for that, we’d need Rafinha.

***

Here’s a scenario: let’s say it’s 2010, and someone tells you that in 5 or 6 years, Brazil will have a U25, La Masia graduate, Blaugrana regular, son of a former World Cup winner as a midfield candidate. You’d take that in a heartbeat, wouldn’t you?

I certainly would.

Unfortunately, while Rafinha’s pedigree is superb, it’s still not clear what kind of a player he actually is…or whether he’s good enough for the Seleção.[6]

Let’s take a look.

Rafinha – The road so far

Frankly, it’s surprising Rafinha is even eligible for the Seleção at all. Born in Brazil but raised in Spain, and accepted into Barcelona’s legendary academy at the tender age of 13, no one would have blinked had Rafinha declared his loyalty to the Spanish crown. It’s impossible to know why exactly he chose to represent Brazil instead, but Spain’s glut of midfield talent probably had something to do with it. Perhaps a desire to escape the shadow of his more heralded older brother played a part, too.

Whatever his reasoning, Rafinha wears the yellow shirt. But because he came up through Barcelona’s youth system rather than a Brazilian club, Rafinha has always flown a little bit under the radar when it comes to international recognition. Despite playing a sport where every pundit and media outlet is obsessed with the next big thing, Rafinha has never enjoyed the kind of spotlight that comes with assumed future stardom.

That’s not to say he’s gone completely unheralded. Barcelona fans certainly knew they had a player to keep an eye on after he played a starring role for Juvenil A, the club’s U-19 team. This scouting report from 2010 is interesting:

The younger of the two Alcântara brothers, Rafa or ‘Rafinha’ is very much a crack in his own right.

Possessing a wand for a left foot, Rafinha is a set piece specialist and is extremely skilled at providing the final pass. Already one of the best players at every youth stage he has played at, the player took his game to a higher level this past season, becoming the standout player in his position in the division of honor under-19 league; Rafinha’s effectiveness in front of goal being so impressive he practically killed the Barca careers of seasoned goal scorers Mauro Icardi and Gael Etock, relegating both players to the bench in the first half of the season. This impressive form led to a debut in the Segunda division with Barca B in the second half of the season, and a goal soon followed in his next appearance. By the end of the season, Rafinha had made 10 appearances for the B team and won a treble with the under 19’s.

With his strong tactical adaptability to go with his refined technique and physical abilities, Rafa is certainly one for the future of both Barca and Spain.

Note that the author assumed Rafinha would represent Spain, having already done so at youth level.

Rafinha would quietly but consistently carve out a leading role for himself at Barcelona B. He even earned a brief call-up to the senior team in 2011. It was clear that management saw something in him…but also clear there would be little to no chance of him earning minutes for a side that already boasted Xavi, Busquets, and Iniesta. (Remember, Thiago, unquestionably the more talented player, left the club for precisely that reason.)

A loan was inevitable, so off he went to Celta Vigo in northwestern Spain. There he would gain consistent first-team experience under none other than Luis Enrique, his current manager at Barcelona.

Celta Vigo

In 2013/14, Celta was a plucky club that occasionally punched above its weight. Firmly ensconced in the middle of the pack, they never really threatened to earn a spot in European competition, but they did improve as the season went on. The same was true for Rafinha, who alternated most often between central midfield and the right wing. I watched him a few times that year, including a couple solid performances against both Barcelona and Real Madrid. What I saw was a player who was very confident on the ball, liked to run at defenders, but couldn’t shoot and was regularly guilty of taking too many touches. I also saw a player more than willing to help out in defense.

Rafinha’s box-score stats were nothing to write home about (4 goals, a handful of assists) but his more advanced stats support what my eyes were telling me, especially on defense. Per Squawka, his tackle success rate was well over 60%, and he also recorded a high number of interceptions, clearances, and balls recovered. One thing my eyes didn’t tell me – perhaps I just watched the wrong games – was his passing skill. In general, I’ve always found Rafinha’s passing to be accurate but conservative. He’s fine at identifying and passing to whoever’s in space, but to my eye, he rarely attempts anything ambitious. Per Squawka, however, Rafinha created 32 scoring chances with 28 key passes, with a pass accuracy rate of 83%. Those are good numbers for a young player.

Personally, I found Rafinha to be an interesting prospect, though hardly a jaw-dropping one. I mentioned on the old site that he was someone to keep an eye on. If his season at Celta was a base to build on, than we might just have a player on our hands. If it was already his ceiling, then forget it.

Barcelona must have felt the same, because they promptly recalled him. Luis Enrique’s switch from Galicia to Catalunya certainly helped. Despite being well down in the pecking order, Enrique’s faith in Rafinha was clear, given that he spent far more time on the pitch than fellow La Masia classmate Sergi Roberto, who already had a full season under his belt with the senior team.

Back in Barcelona

Rafinha played 36 matches for Barca last season. Most came off the bench, but he started his share of contests in the Copa and against La Liga’s lesser sides, benefiting from Enrique’s austere rotation policy. Again, his box score stats are nothing to write home about. His advanced stats, however, are intriguing:

  • 67% take-ons completed
  • 92% passing accuracy
  • 48% successful tackle-rate

The take-on number is excellent. In fact, it technically makes him a more efficient dribbler than either Messi or Neymar. Of course, it’s such a small sample size that it doesn’t really mean he’s a better dribbler than Messi, but it does illustrate his ability on the ball. The passing accuracy is interesting, too. A high accuracy rate is a prerequisite to play in the Barcelona midfield, but again the number is a little misleading. My suspicions that most of his passes tended to be simple and conservative were confirmed after watching him umpteen times last year. Again, he finds the open man well enough…but he’s hardly threading thru-balls through the defense, or pinging switches to the opposite flank. The 48% successful tackle-rate is perhaps the most intriguing. It’s much lower than the previous season, but still relatively high. By comparison, Ivan Rakitic’s number was 40%.

As for the eye test? Well, let’s take a closer look at some of Rafinha’s strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths

Dribbling

As you would expect from a La Masia graduate, Rafinha is fairly adept at controlling the ball in tight spaces. While nowhere near the level of a Messi or an Iniesta, he’s clearly studied both, adopting the croqueta technique that both players love (switching the ball from one foot to the other in quick succession.) But his two favorite techniques both involve his left foot. The first, and probably best thing he can do with the ball is make some extremely tight turns using his left foot alone. This enables him to collect the ball in deep positions with his back to the opponent’s goal, turn sharply, and then advance. Observe:

Rafinha turn 1

Rafinha turn 2

His second favorite technique is to “show” the ball with his left foot, bait the defender, then drag the ball back across his body and accelerate:

Rafinha show 1Rafinha show 2

Improvisation

He’s not quite at the level of his brother in this regard, but Rafinha is an occasionally quick thinker who can improvise solutions in tricky, frenetic situations. In fact, this is an area that I almost wish he’d trust himself more. Too often he settles for more conservative back- or sideways passes.

Rafinha improv 1Rafinha improv 2

Ball recovery

This is where his La Masia training is most apparent – in his willingness to track back and retrieve the ball instead of just waiting for it to come to him.

Rafinha tackle 1

All in all, Rafinha’s strengths mean he can be counted on to contribute in both halves of the pitch. Given Brazil’s desperate need for two-way players, this more than anything else is what makes him such an intriguing option.

Unfortunately, there are still too many question marks about Rafinha’s game to make him a shoe-in for the Seleção, either now or in the future. Here are some of his weaknesses:

Weaknesses

Lack of elite athleticism

There are a few things that prevent Rafinha from being a world-class attacking player. The first is pace. Rafinha has decent pace, but it’s hardly blinding, and this sometimes means he can be tracked down fairly easily.

Rafinha’s short stature and lack of jumping ability also makes him unremarkable in the air. You would think that that same stature, combined with his solid, sturdy build would give him a certain level of strength and a low center of gravity, but that’s not always apparent. Indeed, while preparing this article, I was struck by how often he was easily muscled off the ball or knocked to the ground.

This lack of elite athleticism can be easily overcome if your technique and intelligence are enough to compensate (and what better place than Barcelona to enhance your technique and intelligence?) but Rafinha doesn’t always display those things either.

Decision making

Some players just consistently make bad decisions. Others try to be too ambitious too much of the time. Rafinha has neither of those problems. His issue is the lack of a clear objective in mind when he gets the ball. That can lead to delayed passes or overextended runs. This means he can easily get into trouble, especially the closer he is to the opponent’s box. It’s not uncommon to see him take one or two touches too many, find himself surrounded, and then try a desperate layoff to a teammate, usually when it’s too late.

Lack of elite vision

Rafinha is a solid passer, as witnessed by the passing statistics mentioned above. But again, most of those passes tend to be conservative.

Rafinha passes

This graphic, courtesy of FourFourTwo StatsZone, is a little unfair to Rafinha, considering it comes from a match where he played as a left-winger, by far his least favored position. Still, I feel it’s fairly indicative – mainly sideways and back passes. His inability to consistently exploit seams in the defense through passing, and the fact that he would rather take one or two touches first, makes him ill-suited to play in central midfield in my opinion.

Important note: while it’s true I’m criticizing Rafinha for his passing, one thing I’m not doing is expecting him to be spraying killer passes left and right.  I don’t expect that from him, certainly not at this point.  What disappoints me is the lack of forward, positive passes – the kind of passes designed to start attacks rather than merely keep possession.

Shooting

Rafinha is very one-footed, and that extends to both his dribbling and his shooting. The shooting problem is compounded by the fact that he is not particularly adept at creating quality shots for himself, nor is he accurate when he does so. The youth-team review quoted above is interesting, because it mentions how well he performed in the false nine role. I have trouble seeing that at this level. That said, it’s possible Rafinha simply doesn’t feel comfortable enough looking for his own shot when playing for Barcelona. As he ages and assumes a more senior role, it’s possible he will look to shoot more, and become more accurate as his number of attempts increases. When he does shoot, I would like to see him aim a little less for the top corners (he usually ends up missing the target all together) and instead try and hit the ball low and hard along the ground.[7]

Blends in, but doesn’t stand out

This is by far the biggest reservation I have about Rafinha.

It’s to Rafinha’s credit that, at only 22 years old, he can slot into a starting role for a team like Barcelona and not look out of place.

But whether playing for Barca, Celta Vigo, or even the Brazilian youth team, I almost always feel that Rafinha is too willing to blend in and not willing enough – or capable enough – to stand out. He can go long stretches without impacting the game or even be noticeable. That’s certainly been true for the start of this season. I watched his last match, where he started on the left wing (again, his least favorite position) against Athletic Bilbao, and he was barely a factor. Worse, he barely even tried to be a factor. His off-ball movement was lethargic, his positioning unhelpful, his aggression non-existent.

If that’s really who he is, Brazil just can’t afford a player like that. Not after this past Copa America, when too many players were merely passengers.

Here’s another question I have: what unique attributes does he bring, exactly? What position is he most suited for? I think I’ve made it clear that he has some definite qualities, but none of those qualities make me salivate. More to the point, what does he bring tactically? Do other teams ever alter their tactics because of him? Right now, it doesn’t seem like it.

The two most obvious positions for him are the ones he played at Celta: right wing and central midfield. I have serious reservations about both. Right wing is probably his best position, but I question whether he has the pace, or offers enough of a scoring threat, to be counted on. Central midfield seems like a no-go to me. His vision and decision making just aren’t good enough – and Brazil has called up too many midfielders who are simply not good enough.

Rafinha can certainly “do a job” at either position, and it’s nice to have players with that kind of versatility. At the same time, positional versatility can be a curse as much as a blessing. I’d rather use a very good right-winger (maybe Lucas Moura, maybe Douglas Costa) or a very good central-midfielder (Oscar, maybe Casemiro) than a player who is merely decent at both. As of right now, Rafinha seems like Ramires 2.0. “Ramires” in the sense that he can do a creditable job at either RW or CM; “2.0” in the sense that he’s more technically gifted than Ramires (but not the lung-buster Ramires is.) That’s useful, but not very inspiring.

So what’s the verdict on Rafinha?

My verdict is this: maybe someday, but not yet.

Here’s the good news, though: he’s got plenty of time to grow. At the end of the day, he’s still only 22 years old, playing for the best club in the world. With Arda Turan unavailable until January, he’ll probably get a lot of playing time over the next few months. It’s extremely possible Rafinha will make an enormous leap over the next one to two years. If he does, he’ll be on the plane to Russia.

In summary: if Rafinha’s current level is his base and not his ceiling, he’ll be a fantastic player. And at the end of the day, Brazil needs every technically able, possession-oriented, two-way player it can get.

The best news? In order to become that player, there’s no better club in the world to be at than Barcelona.

The ball is on the penalty spot for Rafinha. Let’s see what he does with it.

 


 

[1] Or their ear bitten off. (This is what’s known as a “low-hanging fruit” type of footnote.)

[2] At least, Fernandinho can’t anymore…and certainly not as a lone holding midfielder.

[3] Yes, I include Jefferson here. Re-watching the Copa America recently, I found it staggering how inaccurate and nervous he was with his distribution.

[4] “Dunga?” you ask.  Yes, Dunga.  He was a fantastic passer – in fact, his biggest flaw besides his temper might have been that he was sometimes too ambitious with his passing. We’ll examine this closer in a future article on Dunga the player, which I’m definitely probably maybe going to write someday.

[5] Dunga, however, doesn’t seem to share my optimism.

[6] Not that talent and skill is necessarily a prerequisite for the Seleção these days.

[7] I feel the same way about Coutinho’s shooting, to be honest.