In this piece, Josh Hobbs explores how the Leeds United winger could improve on his season so far…
With five games gone, no wins and only three points on the board, it’s fair to say that Leeds United’s start to the season has not been a good one. Of course, Leeds have played Manchester United and Liverpool in their first five fixtures, and wouldn’t have had much expectation of getting a result against teams of that calibre. However, there have been dropped points against Everton, Burnley and Newcastle and there would certainly have been hopes of picking up at least a win or two from those games.
The Whites have badly struggled with injuries in the early part of the season and have found it difficult to control the ball in the midfield — something which hasn’t been helped by their failure to sign a central midfielder, despite being after one for two summers in a row. Additionally to this, it’s fair to say that not one single player has hit the heights of last season’s performances.
Players like Stuart Dallas and Luke Ayling have looked off-colour, regularly turning the ball over sloppily in build-up. Meanwhile, at the sharp end of the pitch, Patrick Bamford has only scored one goal so far, when he had three by this stage last season.
However, I wanted to write something on Raphinha as I feel he’s had a strange start to the season. In many ways, he’s been our best attacking player, as shown by his involvement in almost every goal we’ve scored or major chance we’ve created so far. A selection of some of these moments are shown below:
As you can see, Leeds could well have 0 points at this stage without the involvement of the Brazilian. They could have even taken the lead against Liverpool and given themselves a much better chance of taking something from that game, had Rodrigo finished the chance Raphinha made.
In the press conference given in the lead up to this weekend’s West Ham game, Marcelo Bielsa said that Raphinha is a doubt with the injury he picked up last week, something that will certainly concern Leeds fans. With no wins on the board, and given the important run of games ahead, the club simply can’t afford to lose him at this stage.
However, it feels like Leeds’s star winger isn’t quite on it at the moment.
One Of The PL’s Best Creators In 20/21
To demonstrate this, here are the top performers in the league from last season in both expected assists and for ‘shot-creating actions’ — a metric defined as being the two actions immediately preceding a shot:
As you can see, Raphinha featured in the top ten for both of these metrics, alongside Jack Harrison in expected assists and Rodrigo for shot-creating actions (SCA).
With the caveat that this is still only a tiny sample size — so we shouldn’t make big conclusions yet — this season shows a dip in both metrics for Leeds’ chief creator.
When it comes to expected assists, he currently ranks 17th in the league and is generating 0.23 xA per 90 thus far. Meanwhile, he is down in 40th for shot-creating actions per 90. This sounds far worse than it actually is however, as he is averaging 3.59 SCA per 90; not a huge drop on the 4.16 which put him as one of the best performers in the division last season.
His rank is much lower at this stage simply because there are some vastly inflated per 90 figures, due to the small sample size. The top performer for example, Adama Traore, is unlikely to maintain 7.22 SCA over the course of the season, especially given that last season’s leader in the metric, Kevin De Bruyne, couldn’t even manage that figure.
Of course, as the season goes on and the sample size grows, we may well see Raphinha climbing in these metrics, though as I mentioned, I’m not making a conclusion on him dropping his level at this stage, but there is a suggestion that he might not quite hit the same heights this term.
Is He Going Too Direct This Season?
Looking at Raphinha’s profile on fbref.com, we can see that over the last year, he has been an outstanding attacking player.
However, the thing that really leaps out to me at the moment is his pass completion statistic. At only 66.6%, he ranks in the 7th percentile for attacking midfielders and wingers in this metric.
On the one hand, it is normal for a player as direct and aggressive with the ball to have low pass completion. It’s a trade-off you have to make, because the high risk/high reward passes he plays are worth it enough of the time. However, the turnovers from direct passing throughout the team have been costing Leeds in the early part of the season, as the transition defending has been frankly awful. Raphinha is one of the worst culprits for this and the fact that he’s a direct attacker shouldn’t be an excuse for him to rank that low for pass completion.
For reference, Bruno Fernandes — a similarly direct player — has a completion rate of 74.1% which puts him in the 40th percentile, whilst Jack Grealish hits a whopping 79.9% accuracy to give him a ranking of the 77th percentile. Kevin De Bruyne is much lower — in the 10th percentile — but he’s still almost 10% more accurate with his passes than Raphinha as he has a completion rate of 76.1%. These three players are the top creators in the Premier League, yet they are far better at retaining the ball than the Leeds man.
My suggestion is that Raphinha is forcing it too often this season.
Above is a graphic of all the long passes he has attempted so far in 21/22.
As you can see, he strongly favours that area around halfway, where he will duck inside and look to play a ball over the top for Bamford to chase, try to swing in an early cross or try to switch the play. This has been unsuccessful far more than it has been successful in the first five games.
The Negatives: Decision Making
Here are some examples of where it’s gone wrong this season:
I personally find the two examples from the Manchester United game the most jarring.
This is because of the moment in the game at which Raphinha attempted these passes. The first one came with Manchester United having just taken the lead. The player clearly wanted to get Leeds straight on the front foot and get a quick goal back, but to my mind, he had three better options available than to try and find Harrison with a pass that was extremely difficult to pull off. It was actually rather fortunate that the ball ran straight out of play. If it had been turned over in open play, Leeds might have been struggling, given how many runners were committing forwards. This leads to the second example.
This came with Leeds having just equalised through an Ayling thunderbolt. The moment Raphinha took control of the ball, he seemed to want to play the inswinging cross from deep. He definitely didn’t have any short pass options on this occasion, as you will see by the moment that I have paused the clip. However, observe the fact that Bamford is pointing for him to play it wide as Ayling and Mateusz Klich are making runs behind Luke Shaw.
I think this might have been a challenging pass to get right on his left foot, but clipping it over Shaw’s head was probably an easier pass than the one he attempted. As it happened, it was easily dealt with by the Manchester United defence. Seconds later, Shaw passed it to Paul Pogba, who was able to exploit the fact that Leeds had committed high up the pitch, releasing Mason Greenwood to score.
I’m not blaming Raphinha for that result, but perhaps if Leeds had settled on the ball for a few minutes after restoring parity in the game, it might have played out as a more tightly contested affair, instead of it unravelling so quickly. I do feel somebody coming short to offer a passing option for Raphinha would have helped in this moment but ultimately I think the Brazilian made the wrong call here.
Also, note that Dallas appears to be frustrated at Raphinha launching the ball to Bamford in the Everton game when he could pass the ball back to build again. The Northern Irishman is also calling for the crossfield pass to his feet against Burnley. On both occasions, Raphinha tries to force the issue and Leeds give up the ball cheaply.
The Positives: How Raphinha Can Pick His Moments
Of course, there have been excellent opportunities created with passes like these in the past:
As well as the above two chances from last season, the goal at Newcastle obviously came from an early cross — albeit one from a little higher up the pitch than some of the other examples. It was whipped to perfection, meaning it evaded the defence and even though Rodrigo couldn’t get the touch on it, was so dangerous that it went straight in.
With that in mind, I’m not suggesting that Raphinha should cut this out of his game. It’s part of what makes him such a dangerous player. However, Leeds are lacking control at the moment and are extremely susceptible to counter-attacks, particularly through the middle. I feel it would benefit the team if he would be a little better at picking his moments to launch such ambitious passes.
In many of the examples I chose, I think he could have passed the ball on and made a run elsewhere, looking to receive the ball again in a much more dangerous position high up the pitch. For example, Bamford’s goal at Burnley came after Raphinha drove into the box and caused havoc from a far higher starting position.
Ideally, I wouldn’t want Raphinha to limit himself, given that he is the most exciting creative individual in our team. However, in my opinion, — as well as better chances being possible if he is higher up the pitch — it feels like the defensive structure can’t quite cope with a player turning it over as often as Raphinha does. The flip side of this, though, is that if he attempts less in an attacking sense, Leeds might create fewer chances overall, which wouldn’t be beneficial.
Presuming Raphinha is fit to play, Leeds’ next four games after facing West Ham this weekend are Watford, Southampton, Wolves and Norwich. These were the types of games in which Raphinha was often a difference maker for the Whites. His performances against Crystal Palace and Southampton at Elland Road stick in the memory particularly.
Should he perform to similar levels again, Leeds have a good chance of coming out on top and beginning to climb the table and I’ll forget about these early concerns about directness. For the sake of all of us tearing our hair out at the start of the season, let’s hope it plays out that way.