|Written by Lee Chun Hang|
Leeds’s Attacking Rewards
When Bielsa led Leeds United to promotion after 16 years of trying, they did so with such conviction in the attack, registering the most shots in the Championship (754) and scoring 77 times. That also coincided with their immense work rate in all areas of the pitch, as Bielsa prioritizes man-marking opponents for the whole game. Failure to do so would often result in berates from their manager whilst squatting down, holding a cup of coffee. Their work rate and defensive qualities rewarded the Yorkshire side with the best defensive record in the division, conceding only 35.
Fast forward to the start of the season, critics were downplaying Leeds’s chance of survival for their gun hole style of play, often times approaching big teams with naivety rather than optimism. Some even drew comparison with Norwich City of the 2018/19 season, who boast great impetus in their arsenal but ultimately failed to stay afloat due to their weakness in defense. Now, Bielsa has Leeds sitting comfortably at midtable, playing a rather unique and intense style of football which have impressed fans and neutrals alike. Sticking to their attacking philosophies, Leeds have scored 43 goals thus far, which is more than the likes of Everton and Arsenal. Though most of these are credited to Patrick Bamford who has a hand in nearly 42% of the goals they’ve scored, much appreciation has to go to summer signing Raphinha from Rennes for less than £20m, another shout for bargain of the season.
Rennes’s Lost, Leeds’s Treasure
Rennes decision to sell Raphinha may probably be a question left unsolved for years, as fans and player phantom over the verdict to sell the player for less than what they had paid for him a season ago, despite playing very well in his debut season. But Leeds will not care whatsoever, as they have managed to pull off a coup, having themselves their very own silky winger capable of the unpredictable and ability to take the game by the scruff of the neck.
The 5’9 winger is predominantly left footed and operates as an inverted winger from the right for Marcelo Bielsa’s 4-1-4-1 formation. Along with unparallel abilities and skills in his disposal, Raphinha is also adapted to play the demanding style of high pressing football required by Bielsa, constantly running his socks off for the team and providing cover for Luke Ayling on the right flank. The Brazilian has also struck up a great relationship on the pitch with Patrick Bamford in particular, with the duo linking up and causing mayhem to opponents. Raphinha shows great tactical acumen and understanding to Bielsa’s playstyle, by having an effective relationship with Ayling and the right sided midfielder, be it Dallas or Klich. The three players often interchange in position to confuse opponents and creating space to exploit.
Raphinha, Ayling and Klich interchanging in positions to open up space to be exploited
Raphinha has been a bit of a journey man himself with Leeds already being the 5th professional club he has signed for at a relatively young age at 24. If he keeps performing the way he is till the end of the season, club number 6 may not be too far ahead for the Brazilian. The dashboard below shows the elite player he is slowly becoming, and things can only improve if he keeps it up.
This analysis will cover Raphinha’s performance with Leeds United this season. All figures below are based on performance per 90 minutes played, according to FBref via StatsBomb. Heatmap is according to Sofascore.
Raphinha possesses low center of gravity, due to his size and it allows him to dribble at speed effectively, beating opponents with ease. The winger is blessed with pace and flair, add both together and you have a defensive headache coming up against him. The agility in which he maneuvers the ball from left to right, is very entertaining as well as unpredictable for defenders to defend. He ranks amongst the league’s most successful dribblers with 2.10 Successful Dribbles per90, ranking him as a better dribbler than the likes of Adama Traore and Aubameyang. The winger’s dribbling abilities enables him to carry the ball to the penalty area efficiently as well, as he ranks first for carries into the penalty area for Leeds with 26 this season.
His skills are also a massive weapon he possesses as he demonstrated against Gary Cahill in a game against Crystal Palace. With the winger seemingly running out of room to maneuver an opportunity, he effortlessly performs a roulette and nutmegs Cahill at the edge of the penalty area, winning his side a foul outside the penalty box. This goes to show the Brazilian’s creativity and confidence in the Premier League.
Raphinha sending Cahill for a hotdog
Leeds’s COC (Chief of Creation)
Raphinha ranks amongst the best creators in the league in terms of shot-creating actions. Currently, the playmaker registers 4.35 shot-creating actions per90, only 5 elite playmakers in the league betters him this statistic, the 5 being James Maddison, Mason Mount, Kevin De Bruyne, Bruno Fernandes and Jack Grealish, not a bad company at all. In terms of goal-creating actions, he registers 0.45 per90, which is higher than the average amongst forwards in the league so far. On top of that, he also ranks as one of the elites in terms of key passes and expected assists per90 as well. So far, being Leeds’s source of creativity, he has registered 0.29 expected assists per90, meaning he has managed to get into great positions but finishing from teammates may have let him down at times. His key passes are also integral to Leeds, as he currently registers 2.5 per90, registering more key passes than the likes of Sadio Mane and Harry Kane.
Many of his chances created come from set-piece deliveries. Raphinha possess great vision and has a wand of a left foot that enables the execution of the delivery. The game against Wolverhampton where they lost 1-0 is a clear highlight reel of his ability in dead-ball situations, with the player conjuring up chance after chance from set-pieces, only to be disappointed by his teammates finishing in the game.
Raphinha has excellent set piece deliveries, unfortunate to not collect more assists
The winger is also capable of finding players in the box with a variety of crosses be it from the left or right. His favorite, however, seems to be when he cuts inside into the right half space and delivers balls with his left to attacks to poach on. His ability to pick out passes from tight or difficult situations are also a major highlight of his playstyle.
Raphinha’s assists against Newcastle sees the Brazilian coming inside and lofting a ball towards Harrison in the box
In the game against Newcastle, Raphinha is seemingly blocked of all passing lanes by two of their defenders in the box, yet he still manages to poke a ball through the space to conjure up a good chance.
Raphinha seemingly running out of room, marked by two players, but somehow managed to thread a pass through to Dallas who got a shot in
Raphinha is also adapted to play long balls from deep or the center of the pitch. His long-range passes have gone under the radar, but it is one of his great traits as well. He normally drifts inwards to receive the ball and plays beautiful balls to the penalty area or final third. This does show his versatility as well as game intelligence as to when it is suitable to move inwards and attempt to dictate play from deep. In the dying embers against Wolves, Raphinha receives the ball just behind the halfway line and plays a splendid long ball towards Helder Costa in the penalty area, unfortunately it did not result in a goal but it goes to show the Brazilian’s repertoire of passes.
Ability to pick out players from deep with long passes
To play in Bielsa’s system, every player must be committed and work hard for the team be it in the offense or defense. Raphinha has shown that as gifted as he is in the attacking phases of the game, he does not forget his defensive responsibilities on the pitch. Alongside his teammates, he possesses a great work ethic that sees him running his socks off from start to finish, not presenting opponents a moment of respite. Raphinha currently ranks amongst the top 10 for tackles + interceptions per90 amongst forwards in the premier league with 2.60. This goes to show that he does win back possession for the Whites and so often does so via his body positioning and anticipation.
In the game against Wolves again, Raphinha anticipates the flight and direction of the ball superbly and intercepts it greatly. He proceeds to drive forward with the ball, creating a good chance from a cross but got deflected off for a corner. This does highlight the winger’s intelligence and anticipation against tough opposition.
Raphinha showing great anticipation in intercepting a loose ball in a dangerous area, which resulted in winning the team a corner
Another instance which highlights his defensive responsibilities is his commitment to tracking opponents back into his own penalty area. He has developed a great understanding with Ayling on the right flank and both players have been helping each other in the attacking phase as well as the defensive phase of the game. In the same game against Wolves, Raphinha is often tracking back to ensure Jonny is constantly being marked and collecting loose balls ahead of the Spaniard.
Raphinha tracking back to collect the loose ball ahead of Jonny
Perhaps one area Raphinha can improve on is his goalscoring rate. Based on the stats this season, the winger has registered 1.20 shots on targets per90, which ranks him amongst the league’s best in this aspect. His shots have often times troubled the keepers with accuracy, but he has only beaten them in 5 occasions. According to Understat, majority of his shots have come from within the penalty box. The average distance of shots taken this season are 16.3 yards. Given the chances he has and the quality he possesses, he should definitely be scoring more goals given his quality.
Raphinha may have to work on his headers as well as they are a hindrance to his all-round game. Thus far, Raphinha has the second worst aerial duels success rate amongst his team with a measly 20.5%, only behind Helder Costa. In one instance against Aston Villa, Raphinha has the opportunity to equalize the game with a header late in the 88th minute but his lack of composure and poor technique resulted in an appalling attempt on goal.
Raphinha missing a glorious header to equalize, mistiming his header and getting the technique all wrong
The future of Brazilian football?
Raphinha has undoubtedly been Leeds’s best signing of the season, given the price and quality he possesses, he may even be in the reckoning for signing of the season, provided he maintains his performance levels in the remainder of the games. Coming in for just £17m, he may feel devalued by his former employers, but make no mistake about it, if he ever were to leave Leeds, his value may rise up to £50m, especially when you consider he hasn’t even hit his physical peak yet. The winger is blessed with pace, flair and also proves to be a very intelligent player for one of the more demanding coaches in the Premier League, add in his immense work rate and positive behavior, Raphinha’s ceiling is high, and few would doubt him to reach it.
Perhaps what is more astonishing about the winger, is that he hasn’t been called up to the national team set up before, not even for the youth teams. There may be a suffice of talented attacking players in their disposal with the likes of Neymar and Vinicius Junior, but Raphinha more than holds his own against the elites and should be given a chance to prove his worth with the national team. Perhaps performances this season would have alerted a few coaches to it, till then he is also eligible for Italy as he is half Italian due to his Italian father.
With rumors linking him to Manchester United and Liverpool, it goes without saying that the next stage of his career will be his most important one and he should learn whatever he can from “The Professor” as he likes to call Bielsa at Elland Road. Hone his skills, and then proceed to compete against one of Europe’s finest for years to come. Who knows, he may end up having a career like his idol/ family-friend – Ronaldinho.