Raphinha: Leeds’ Summer Success Story

In this piece, Tom from Crewe Analytics looks at how far Raphinha has come since his signing this summer and asks, “Is the sky the limit for the young Brazilian?”

Here we are, halfway through their first season back in the Premier League, and Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds team already feel part of the furniture. A guaranteed good watch, the inevitablity that they will annoy ‘proper football men’, and (tempting fate, considering their recent wobble) an assured Premier League outfit for next season already.

While anyone who has watched Bielsa’s Leeds closely in the Championship shouldn’t be too surprised by their step up, they haven’t just elevated their performance, they have (more critically) elevated the quality within their squad.

In 2019/20, a Yorkshire side surprised the Premier League with a charismatic and misunderstood manager, a unique style of play, and provided a freshness to a stale Premier League mid-table. In 2020/21, that team are on 8 points after 20 games and, a win against Manchester United notwithstanding, look like a sure bet for relegation.

But where Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United are hamstrung by his side’s recruitment since returning to the Premier League this term, Marcelo Bielsa has so far benefited from shrewd, targeted transfer business led by Leeds’ Sporting Director. Victor Orta, in Bielsa’s shadow in the Leeds narrative despite seeming too long for the limelight, deserves a hat tip for his signings in the summer.

One signing already stands out. Raphinha, on paper, is exactly the type of player that any football fan gravitates towards.

The tricky Brazilian winger plays every game as an audition for a Youtube highlight reel. However, he hasn’t quite broken into the wider consciousness yet. His name is still tripped over. His stock is still simmering. But, not for long.

Who Are Ya?

Despite a productive couple of years in France, where he was among the top 10 players in Ligue 1 for Expected Assists (6th in the league’s 19/20 season), key passes (10th in 19/20) and players dribbled past (also 10th), Rennes seemed happy enough to be rid of him.

Happy enough in fact to sell him for less than they bought him for. With a replacement in Jeremy Doku already lined up, they let him leave for a fee that could look embarrassing in 18 months, if Raphinha’s improvements in a Leeds shirt continue.

Orta’s shrewdness was not just finding such a promising talent (who just turned 24), but one that was a perfect fit for Bielsa’s system. Raphinha’s skill with his left foot from both dead balls and open play has helped Leeds increasingly cut through opposition defences with ease.

Bielsa hoards left-footed players like Beanie Babies because they help the team attack at speed, balancing their play and lessening the need for several touches for each player.

According to FBRef/Statsbomb data from 2019, around 75% of Premier League players are predominantly right-footed. Leeds players this season are a 50/50 split, helping the team create a ‘mirror’ down the centre of the pitch. This is especially useful in the final third, where all their play can quickly move towards the box and the goal.

The directness of Leeds’ play when they get into the opposition’s half suits Raphinha perfectly. His best traits are the directness of his dribbling and passing, and his willingness to get shots off.

This chart from Tom Worville at The Athletic, shows the player from each time with the highest ‘usage rate’.

These players are the ones where a team’s moves most commonly end — either because they’ve done something positive (a goal, a shot, won a foul/corner) or something more negative (losing the ball). They are the risk-takers, the playmakers. The players you actually give the ball to hoping they’ll make something happen, rather than just lending it to them.

Raphinha tops the Usage Rate figure for Leeds. Almost 15% of Leeds attacks end with him. He’s 8th in the Premier League for shots per 90. He’s 3rd in the Leeds side to Jack Harrison and Mateusz Klich for Expected Assists per 90 (0.25). He plays the most key passes in the final third for his side (2.37 per 90). He also loves to take players on, with only Poveda topping Raphinha for Leeds in terms of take-on attempts (3.51 per 90).

As outlined by All Stats Aren’t We’s own Josh Hobbs on a Twitter thread, Raphinha does his best creative work on the right-hand side. The majority of the chances Raphinha has created in open play this season have been from the right half-space, just outside the box.

It’s noticeable watching him that he can create from the middle third of the pitch as well as the final one. He’s willing to play long cross field balls, normally looking for Jack Harrison, to mix up the tempo of Leeds play and catch out stretched opposition defensive lines.

This kind of variety and risk-taking is very useful for unlocking defenses and all points to Raphinha being an all-round attacking threat, especially creatively.

Areas for Improvement

His xG per shot is low this season (0.10) and it’s obvious to see from his shot map (taken from Understat below) that he likes to take on shots that verge on silly. Here are Raphinha’s shots from the current Premier League season:

This is an area where Raphinha can obviously clean up his game. Even at Rennes, he typically underperformed compared to his xG, largely due to taking on very low-quality shots.

Taking a few of those shots away and turning them into dangerous passes or dribbling into a better position would put him in the big leagues of Premier League attacking threats.

The obvious benchmark for improvement to this side of his game is Riyad Mahrez. Mahrez, it’s easy to forget, was actually in the Leicester side for a couple of seasons before that season.

Similarly left-footed, similarly gifted with the ball at their feet, Mahrez’s game took him to the next level in Leicester’s title-winning season as much from ‘doing less bad stuff’ as ‘doing more good stuff.’ He grew through refining and streamlining his talent, rather than simply taking it for granted.

For example, Mahrez’s open play shot map from the 2014/15 season (age 23/24) looks similar to Raphinha’s current one (again from Understat):

Look at the bunch of speculative shots at the bottom from outside the box. Over half his shots (33 of 63) were from outside the box, and he only had 4 goals that season (marked in green).

The next season, 2015/16, Mahrez’s shot map looked more like this:

On first glance, it may not look much different, but Mahrez’s shot selection vastly improved. He still took 38 shots from outside the box, but vastly increased the shots inside the box (48). He scored 17 goals that season. Every single one was from inside the box.

While Mahrez is maybe an ambitious benchmark for Raphinha, I think he and Leeds should take lessons from the Algerian’s development in the Premier League. His output and value will almost certainly increase.

Raphinha’s dribbling could also tighten up. He can run into dead ends and perhaps overcomplicates things, with only around 51% of his dribbles completed so far this season.

Watching him, he is clearly gifted on the ball. But he can be slightly overambitious on it. Better quality shot selections and less in-field dribbling into tight spaces and the sky’s the limit for Raphinha’s on-the-ball ability.

Without the ball, Raphinha doesn’t look out of place in a ridiculously hard-working Leeds side, which is an achievement in itself. He reads the game well and has put up decent interception numbers, taking good angles to block off passing lanes.

In duels, he suffers from his slight physique. He doesn’t like to tackle and isn’t especially successful when he does it (0.36 tackles won per game, lowest in the Leeds squad). He is also second lowest for aerial duel wins (20% won, only trumping the hilariously-low Helder Costa who has won just 6.7%).

The Future’s Bright

@FocusOnLeeds have done a fantastic job here summarising the key data on Raphinha, which gives you a clear indication of the strengths and weaknesses in his game.

Raphinha’s passing profile shows he is already among the Premier League leaders in several categories, mixing fantastic accuracy with penetration in both his passing and crossing.

As his connection with teammates like Patrick Bamford and Jack Harrison increases, I wouldn’t be surprised to see his assist numbers improve, especially as Leeds have a reasonable set of fixtures coming up. If Bielsa puts Raphinha on the right for this run of games, I think a few more people outside of Leeds fanbase are going to take notice; sporting directors at big six clubs included.

Overall, you have a player who looks like a hugely promising signing for Leeds, and a blueprint for signings to come.

If Bielsa can secure Leeds as a Premier League side this season, signings like Raphinha look like their best bet. The £15m-£20m range gets you players with raw talent beyond many of Leeds’ squad, but with obvious weak points that’ll deter the big six.

In Bielsa, they have a coach who can turn them into £40m players. With every club currently wrestling with delicate finances, having a few profit spinning players in your squad will help on and off the pitch.

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