The beginning of life at Barcelona for Raphinha has been a curious case.
Many fans and pundits compare him to Ferran Torres.
Both came at a steep cost, and at the request of Xavi as wingers who could fit his system. More on that in a minute.
Their past jobs, however, couldn’t have been more different.
Ferran struggled to break into the Manchester City lineup. In spite of receiving praise from Pep Guardiola for his professionalism and intelligence, he could never surpass the world class talent in front of him.
Playing for Pep had its benefits though, providing an education that made it easy for him to adapt to the Barcelona system once he arrived.
Raphinha burst onto the world stage as a star under Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United. Later on, when Bielsa was replaced by Jesse Marsch, the Brazilian was the main reason his club was able to avoid relegation.
No one can deny Raphinha’s accomplishments in England. He was a creative force on the field, and one of the very best players in the Premier League. You’d think if he can do it there, he can do it anywhere.
So what’s the difference? Why was he so successful under Bielsa and Marsch, while looking like a shell of himself under Xavi?
Like Philippe Coutinho before him, the answer is the system, and the Barca way of playing couldn’t be any more different than the show El Loco produced at Elland Road.
Like Coutinho, Raphinha is overflowing with quality. Unlike his Brazilian compatriot, Raphinha also has power, physicality, and a competitive drive to win games.
That’s what we saw against Valencia on Saturday. Even while his struggles on the wing continued, Raphinha didn’t give up.
He knew how important this game was to Barcelona’s chances of staying in step with Real Madrid to compete for a La Liga title that is a must win for the club at this point.
Raphinha is a competitor. He fights hard until the end, and you can’t question his commitment to the badge on his shirt. If you ever need a reminder, just recall this image of him celebrating with fans after saving them from relegation at the death.
Raphinha also has the skill to do something big at any moment. As the minutes were counting down on Saturday, and you sensed many of the Barcelona players were already throwing in the towel, Raphinha kept going and made the perfect pass to find the finisher.
More of this please. But in order to do that, you need to give some of these great players the freedom to step outside of a system that isn’t clicking at the moment.
The good news, unlike in years past, Barcelona is finding ways to win games domestically, even when their performances are bad.
When all is said and done, and you look back at the season, these are the moments that win the titles.
Just ask Real Madrid who have plenty of bad games, but unlike Barcelona, they historically find a way to pull through.
Why? In part, because they usually aren’t married to a system. Down the stretch, they are able to rely on the talent on the field, instead of reverting back to patterns of play that haven’t been working.
For a player like Raphinha to be successful, he needs more freedom. Right now, he is shackled to a structure that makes it predictable and easy for opponents to defend him.
Frankly, it’s the same for Ousmane Dembele. This is another player who, like Raphinha, has a unique mix of skill and raw physical ability, and who is more flexible tactically than Xavi has given him credit for.
Maybe it’s time to experiment with inverted wingers?
So long as Xavi develops the courage to try something new, I’ll be encouraged. Because right now the system itself is what’s holding the team back.
But for now, Barcelona fans will be happy to see that the team continues to win in La Liga.
1-0 results against Valencia, Mallorca, and Celta Vigo, while frustrating, are also a sign of a team that’s ready to make a run, assuming this is them on their off days.
But this team is capable of so much more.
Raphinha in particular is not a player to give up on. Barcelona needs the fighters, and we also want the players capable of sparkling, because we expect to be entertained by our football as well.
I have a feeling that Raphinha will show just what he is capable of at the World Cup as Brazil makes a deep run in the tournament. In fact, he may be one of the most important players on that team.
If he can do it there, under the pressure of such a demanding national team, he can succeed at Barcelona too.
Xavi doesn’t need to build a system around him, but he should at least make sure his system isn’t holding his players back.