Rafinha Alcântara is back from loan. After a great season at Celta Vigo, the 21-year-old Brazilian, brother of Thiago Alcântara - yes, the one who is now at Bayern Münich - hopes to be given opportunities to produce and maybe repeat or improve what he did this season. With Luis Enrique as the new manager, that window of chances can be wide open for Rafinha, since he was Lucho's most important asset at Celta, perhaps the team's best player.
The question is: if he indeed has enough playing time next season, can he become an important piece of the squad? Will he be given the same freedom he had at Celta? Is he as good as his brother? Will he be sold to another team when we are finally starting to love him, and will we cry every day because he was the right guy for us?
Okay, that's too much.
But seriously, can we trust him like Lucho does? Is Rafinha the next big thing for Barcelona?
First of all, he is not Thiago. He plays a totally different way. Thiago likes to orchestrate things, a box-to-box machine that can defend and create at the same time, with unbelievable field vision and accuracy. He was the perfect guy to replace the Xavi era - ok, we can stop crying now. But he's gone.
Rafinha, on the other hand, is a classic Brazilian winger. Fast, strong, talented. He is not really good at off-the-ball stuff. He needs to have the ball on his feet, so he can run at defenders, dribble by them, get into the box and score. That's what Brazilian wingers were built to be - hello, Neymar! -, so you can question whether or not he fits Barça's system. Let's talk about it a little bit later.
Little Rafael struggled badly during his start. So did the team. Celta was still getting used to Lucho's way of playing, and the team won just five of their first 20 games. After that, Rafinha became the guy, the team finally knew what to do under Enrique, and Celta started winning. Nine of the last eighteen to finish in La Liga's top ten, way better than the year before, in which they barely escaped relegation, staying in first division by just one point.
Rafinha scored four goals and assisted five more in 32 appearances. Not much, but if you take into consideration that Celta scored only 49 times the whole season, the Brazilian was directly involved in 18% of their goals, the fourth-highest percentage on the team. He also averaged 1.6 key passes per game, a team's best and a mark that ranked 19th in the whole league, above guys like Neymar, Fàbregas, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi, and Iniesta. He also ranked in the top-25 in WhoScored Rating (you should trust WhoScored), better than Iniesta, Cesc, Modric, among others. Statistically, he was pretty good.
But in soccer, eye-test is also an important way of evaluating a talent. And the eye-test confirms what the stats say: Rafinha is pretty good. He is fast, smart, and creative. Even though he is not tall, he is strong as a bull. It's difficult to get him down and he is great at using his body strength to get around people. It is pretty hard to watch him and not immediately compare him to Hulk. Not the superhero. The player.
(Side note: But, I mean, how amazing would it be if a player could all of a sudden actually transform into Hulk? Would he wear those vintage 1980s shorts? Man, that's a great idea! I think I'm gonna pitch this as a commercial... OH NO, NIKE ALREADY THOUGHT OF IT!)
I said it before he has nothing to do with his brother. But there is actually one Thiago thing he also has: field vision. Rafinha is a very good passer. He plays most of the time with his head up, searching the pitch and often looking for the best play available. His crosses are incredibly accurate. That's a thing to look for. Remember, Celta's forwards are not tall and Rafinha can still find their heads. In a team like Barcelona, this should be interesting.
Here's the thing: Luis Enrique will bring back what always worked for Barça: el tiki-taka. It was abandoned during long stretches of last season under Tata Martino. The team will probably do what they did with Pep Guardiola: pass, pass, pass, pass, and pass a little more. When you're tired of passing, you put a guy in front of the goal and celebrate it. Lucho wants to make it interesting, happy, exciting again. Of course he wants to win, but he'd like to do it with style. Just like he did as a player.
Rafinha fits that mold. He is a good enough passer to practice the tiki-taka, but incisive enough to break this system and try an individual play. And, if you remember, under Guardiola, Barcelona didn't always pass forever. Some of Messi's greatest goals are the ones in which he would take off, sprint with the ball through the defense and score. That's what Rafinha can do, too.
No, I'm not comparing Rafinha to Messi. This is crazy. But he has good enough potential to be an important part of the New Barça. He just needs playing time and that will probably happen with Lucho as the manager.
Rafinha Alcântara is damn young. But he's shown incredible maturity and has evolved into one of the 50 best players in a league that features Barcelona and Real Madrid. This is not easy to do. And it won't be easy to stop him, too. Get out of the way, Rafinha is coming!
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