It wasn’t hard to see how Raphinha could improve Brazil from the bench in the second half of their World Cup Qualifier away to Colombia. Neymar was trying to play further forward but that only took him into the midst of Colombia’s back four, which was protected by two defensive midfielders, and besides, he couldn’t even trap a ball on the touchline. The Brazil front three, Gabriel Jesus, Lucas Paquetá and Gabriel Barbosa, couldn’t get into Colombia’s penalty area. With half an hour left Barbosa went off and Raphinha came on to the right wing, where his first job was to get back and, with a sliding block, give away a corner. The Colombia players were whipping up their crowd; Brazil needed some ideas if the 0-0 score wasn’t going to become something worse.
Olá Raphinha. He didn’t only block, he pressed, letting Colombia left-back Johan Mojica know he was there. Mojica is an interesting case. In 2019/20 he was backing up Samu Saiz on the left flank of Girona’s failed attempt to get out of Segunda Division in Spain, so he must know a thing or two about tricky buggers. He started the next season on loan in Serie A with Atalanta, playing in their 0-5 Champions League defeat to Liverpool, and ended it on loan in La Liga with Elche, conquerors of his parent club in the previous season’s Segunda play-off. They went down and signed him for this season on a permanent transfer.
He had one idea about dealing with Raphinha, and that was showing him down the line. It wasn’t a bad idea because Raphinha loves going inside, finding left-backs easy and making centre-backs his real target. But he wasn’t about to let this Mojica character dictate his dribbling. He’d size the defender up, then dart inside and get him spinning. Carlos Cuesta had to intervene before a dribble turned into a shot on goal; goalie David Ospina had to parry a shot from the D that was going inside his far post; a dipping cross fell perfectly for fellow second-capper Antony at the back post, and Ospina made a superb close range save to keep his shot out. Then his best moment, when instead of sizing Mojica up slowly he knocked the ball fast down the line and chased it, then backheeled inside, then flicked outside, and then Mojica was eating grass while Raphinha took on Wílmar Barrios. From the evidence after the cutback I’m declaring Mateusz Klich better than Neymar, because even if Klich doesn’t always hit the target, at least he can control a setup. It was a struck pass rather than a soft roll, true, but what exactly is the point of Neymar if a pass onto his instep is just going to bounce off him like a tennis ball off a toddler? Almost with a sigh, Raphinha made sure the next chance looked different: Neymar was the wall in a one-two that sent Raphinha into the box, the world star setting up the new star, Everton’s Yerry Mina turning out too big to get around to shoot. The game finished 0-0, but that wasn’t Raphinha’s fault.
“The [two] boys showed a quality that I have hardly seen in more than ten years with the Brazilian national team [from newcomers],” said Thiago Silva, whose first task as a second half sub was to miscontrol a dead ball pass from his goalkeeper and give away a throw-in. “It’s really cool to see Raphinha and Antony showing personality.” And controlling a football, I guess. The contrast was simple: Brazil looked horrible, than Raphinha came on and made things happen.
There might be a trend here that goes beyond Raphinha, but that makes him all the more attractive, and — whisper it in West Yorkshire — harder to keep. Last season, after Diego Maradona died, Marcelo Bielsa spoke about another sadness in football, that the game isn’t creating new versions of Maradona and Messi, “who show their individual brilliance through dribbling … for example, if Mbappe is the best player in the world right now, his art is not comparable to Maradona or Messi.” About Raphinha, he said, “The dribble is always the most dangerous thing for a defence. It resolves all the problems that arise when a team sits back.” That much was clear against Colombia.
This weekend in Spanish newspaper El Pais, Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone was the latest subject in a series of interviews by great former Spain manager Vincent del Bosque, and he was sharing Bielsa’s sadness. “Today you don’t dribble anymore,” said Simeone. “Today it’s all positional, I do numerical superiority here, there. What about talent? What about individual talent? What about dribbling? What about eluding? What about getting a man off his back that breaks the whole structure? Who has it?”
Some might see Bielsa’s style as part of the modern primacy of tactical systems over individual skill, this era when we talk about coaches’ styles more than players’ styles, when conversations about transfers concentrate on the player suiting the coach. Simeone, who was coached by Bielsa with Argentina, told del Bosque that Bielsa’s hope is that his systems will set players free. Coaches should listen to players, Simeone said, about how they want to play:
“I listen a lot. It’s not a weakness at all. I always open up to listen to their needs, to listen to what they see, but then I decide … Bielsa, who was very structured, who had very mechanised movements, said that his greatest pride was when a player went onto the pitch and did something that he decided for himself. Mechanisation generates a stimulus to repeat things, and that’s where the other ‘you’ [the individual] has to appear and add it to what the coaches say.”
That’s two coaches. Del Bosque didn’t dissent so maybe it’s three. Saying football is too rigid, players are too robotic, “Football as a creative spectacle every time has less beauty,” as Bielsa put it. Add to that the fans, like us at Leeds, clamouring for Raphinha and Crysencio Summerville and Joffy Gelhardt to thrill us, and the ones watching Brazil, demanding Raphinha starts the next game. “Jogo Bonito [The Beautiful Game] doesn’t exist anymore in Brasil,” one wrote on Twitter. “Now we play a more European game, boring and physical … There is no longer any remnant of essence or self-identity. That stuff of beautiful plays, kid football, art – it’s part of a remote past.”
For the last half-hour against Colombia kid football came back, and it was Brazil’s best chance of winning the game. Maybe things are about to change. Maybe coaching styles are going to embrace flair, with pundits following, and fans delighted. Maybe Raphinha is soon going to be the most valuable dribbler in the world. ⬢(Every magazine online, every podcast ad-free. Click here to find out how to support us with TSB+)