The player who carries the tag 'most improved' for United so far this year has to be our right back Rafael da Silva, but why is this the case?
His initial introduction into the United team followed a merry go round of Wes Brown, John O'Shea and Chris Smalling playing that role. Phil Jones has provided some competition there too. All tall, all good headers of the ball and all strong defenders.
As a result opposing managers will have seen the smaller, more attacking style of Rafael as a defensive weakness and targeted him with long diagonal crosses which would not have worked with the prior players in that position. He also started with a tendency to jump into tackles and so became a collector of yellow, and to our European cost, red cards. An impetuous defender at best, a liability at most.
Attacking wise he has always offered more than his predecessors, and provided more threat than Gary Neville ever did, with his speed and footwork impressive from the very beginning. However his crossing and his finishing left a lot to be desired as he often made very poor decisions when in good positions.
This season we see the product of hard work and discipline.
The indecisive nature of David De Gea has meant that teams have bombarded us aerially, and against Everton we saw Marouanne Fellaini take us apart in that way. Rafael has faced his share of diagonal crosses, as has Patrice Evra, but he has looked more at ease under them that the polarizing Frenchman.
Rafael gets off the ground well, and heads as well as anyone can at his height. He certainly isn't weak in that area, but what has improved a lot is his ability to stay on his feet when attacked by a winger. Even against Newcastle when they doubled up on him, and Shinji Kagawa didn't come back to help, he stood his ground when in 2 v 1 situations, when last season he would have dived n and left the space exposed behind him. Perhaps this is maturity, perhaps it's coached, but whatever it is, it’s a lot better.
Given that Antonio Valencia is also a very good defender, we have the strongest right side for years which is strong in defence and attack.
Rafael links so well with the Ecuadorian flyer that they now offer a threat either on the outside or inside when attacking, and Rafael is starting to shoot better at the target when cutting in at speed. When they attack at pace and split apart, the options open up and with Robin van Persie moving at speed, and Valencia always likely to just run thru at the keeper- it's a sight we haven't seen since the best days of Andrei Kanchelskis.
Right now Rafael has improved to such an extent that he could be there for years. As long as his niggling injuries stay away, he should prove to be one of the best buys of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign.
Considering we have had Dennis Irwin and Neville (who is a brilliant pundit on Sky by the way) in that list, then this is praise indeed, and why I think Rafael has so far been the most improved player in the first team.
Well done son, and lets hope your brother can emulate you!
While on that subject, Alexander Buttner is a welcome addition to the position that Evra has occupied with increasing fragility. He provides a much needed challenge and has impressed me so far. When Ashley Young returns our left side should stiffen up a lot and Buttner will get 20 plus games this year. Quite where that leaves Fabio is still to be seen but the need for competition was obvious and addressed well in the window.
Evra seems to be paying attention again and this can only be good for us.
By Steve Burrows CBE @ifollowsteve