Leeds United: Raphinha's stunning start to life in Premier League

By Phil DawkesBBC Sport
Raphinha in action against Newcastle
Since his first Leeds start in November, Raphinha has five goals and five assists. Only Bruno Fernandes and James Maddison have managed that in the same timeframe

In his brief time in England, Raphinha has made a vital attacking contribution for Leeds, but the moment that best encapsulates his charm is neither a goal nor an assist.

It occurs 36 minutes into the home game against Crystal Palace, with the Brazilian in possession of the ball near the edge of the penalty area, facing away from goal and the experienced Gary Cahill at his back.

In a flash, Raphinha turns 270 degrees, backheeling the ball through the legs of the ex-England defender, who has no choice but to haul down his opponent.

If you listen to the footage, you can hear one onlooker's gleeful, incredulous laughter echoing around Elland Road.

Had there been fans in the ground, they would have been on their feet.

'Fantastic', 'unbelievable', 'a steal'

With supporters currently denied the live football experience but fed well on a broadcast diet of back-to-back matches, there is a risk of football fatigue.

Players like Raphinha are the antidote.

Rarely has one of his 28 games in England gone by without him producing something to make you sit up and pay attention.

Practically his first act in a Leeds shirt was to fire a defence-splitting, cross-field pass during a late substitute appearance in the 3-0 win at Aston Villa. A low driven winner at Everton followed soon after. There has been the cut inside and lashed finish at West Brom, superb goal and assist at Newcastle and, most recently, the whipped free-kick against Southampton.

Then there's the destruction of Cahill - a piece of such sublime skill it prompted Spanish football reporter Nacho Gonzalez to react like this...

Gonzalez isn't alone.

Pundits are waxing lyrical about Raphinha, he is now in 10% of all Premier League fantasy football sides and his team-mates are running short of superlatives.

He is "fantastic", according to Jack Harrison, "unbelievable" in the opinion of Luke Ayling and "a steal" as far as Patrick Bamford is concerned.

Playing as Leeds' lone centre-forward, with Raphinha to his right, Bamford is better placed than most to fully appreciate the Brazilian, with whom he has struck up a unique relationship by virtue of their ability to communicate in French on the pitch.

"As soon as he came in and I saw him in training... you know sometimes whether a player is top class, and he really was," said Bamford. "He stood out straight away."

Expected assists per 90 minutes in the PL 2020-21

English top-flight midfielders/forwards with over 1000 mins

Source: Opta

Few players have made such an immediate impact at Elland Road and garnered such instant love from fans as Raphinha.

The most obvious modern comparison is Ghana striker Tony Yeboah, who arrived in January 1995 and quickly began compiling his own goal of the month competition.

Whisper the name quietly on the white rose side of the Pennines, but perhaps the player Raphinha must closely resembles in the opportunist manner in which he was bought, the flair he brought to an already efficient side and the instant adoration he has garnered is Eric Cantona.

That Raphinha joined Leeds at all, though, is largely down to the persistence of director of football Victor Orta.

Heading for the 'fish and chip country'

In an alternative timeline, Leeds could have spent this season with Frenchman Michael Cuisance in midfield, while Raphinha took on a Champions League campaign with Rennes.

When an injury issue put paid to Cuisance's £20m move from Bayern Munich late in the summer window, Leeds felt their business was done. And then word came that Rennes' initial 'hands off' stance on Raphinha had softened.

Orta had tracked the player since he was in Brazil, while manager Marcelo Bielsa had maintained an interest of his own. Both knew full well what Raphinha could bring to the team.

Orta moved quickly, securing a £17m (plus £6m in add-ons) fee similar to what Rennes had paid to sign the player from Sporting Lisbon 12 months earlier.

It now looks like the bargain of the season.

The Rennes players knew what they were losing. Such was their fury, they delayed his departure by protesting against the transfer in the changing room after a game against Reims that Rennes had insisted Raphinha play before heading to the airport.

Back in Yorkshire, Leeds staff watched their soon-to-be-colleague score one goal, make another and hit the bar with an overhead kick before enduring a nervous few hours with his whereabouts unknown and radio silence from his representative, former Portugal and Chelsea player Deco.

The Rennes fans were no less irate, with one embarking on a Twitter tirade that criticised Leeds, their fans and "fish and chip country".

When Leeds eventually announced the deal, they did so with a tweet of their own containing a picture of a contract and a plate of fish and chips.

'The best thing you can do is let him be himself'

A glance at Raphinha's CV, showing five clubs before the age of 24, suggests a mercenary quality that is not reflective of his character.

His ability was always likely to take him places, but not with such regularity.

After 15 goals in 32 league appearances at Portuguese club Vitoria in 2017-18, he moved to Sporting, where he formed a superb relationship with now Manchester United midfielder Bruno Fernandes and was reluctant to leave when Rennes came in.

He was similarly irked by the French club's willingness to let him go last summer, telling ESPN Brazil: "I was a little surprised. They had told me that they would not want to sell me for less than 60m euros (£53m). Knowing they accepted the offer [from Leeds] without telling me, I felt devalued."

At Leeds they have found him to be happy and humble, with a love of practical jokes and an eagerness to immerse himself in the club, including their charity work.

When a goalkeeper was required for Bamford to shoot at during a video for Yorkshire Cancer Research, Raphinha stayed around for an hour saving efforts.

This is a continuation of the work he has done with his father in setting up a foundation in his hometown of Porto Alegre, the mentioning of which hints at the difficulties of his upbringing.

"I saw a lot of things when I was younger. Some of my childhood friends are dead; others got involved in the drug trade. That has all stayed with me," he told Goal.

"I want to help these kids who need it, to change their focus, give them a better future. As I couldn't help my friends, I want to help the next generation of children."

Raphinha shoots at goal during his time at Rennes
Raphinha managed eight goals and seven assists for Rennes in his one season in France

Underneath the smiles and skill is a determination to succeed and relentless work ethic, making him not only a match-winner but a perfect component of a honed Leeds side that are far more than the sum of their parts.

"He's done unbelievable to come in and start under the boss, because it's hard," says Ayling. "It usually takes players a few months to get up to pace.

"The work-rate off the ball is just unbelievable. If he gives it away then you watch how he sprints and gets it back straight away. I'm lucky I get to play behind him."

Perhaps the biggest compliment paid to Raphinha comes from his current manager, who has a reputation as one the world's best at improving footballers.

"I sincerely think I can add very little to his game," Bielsa said after the recent win over Southampton. "The best thing you can do with players spontaneous like this is let them be themselves."

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