Matteo Darmian, United’s new £13 million full-back, is versatile. At home at either the right or the left, he became known at Torino for, among other things, his calmness under pressure.
Considering Darmian’s strengths, and record, it’s likely van Gaal sees him as the perfect balance between the rash Rafael and the rigid Valencia. Darmian performed strongly at the World Cup for the Italy, producing explosive forward runs but maintaining discipline at the back when required.
Sadly calmness and versatility are not qualities one might assign to the man who now faces the Old Trafford exit door. Rafael’s stock has fallen steadily since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and the young Brazilian is now firmly behind Darmian and Antonio Valencia in the pecking order.
Louis van Gaal’s apparent distrust of the Brazilian’s rampaging, high-risk style of play limited him to just 10 Premier League appearances last season. Nevertheless, Van Gaal admired the the Rafael’s iron determination to contribute, as was evident after Rafael played through what was later discovered to be a fractured cheekbone against Yeovil in January.
“He played through the pain because in the last few weeks he hasn’t played much but he now can play he is injured,” said van Gaal at the time. “He has a fantastic mentality Rafa, he is unbelievable.”
Unfortunately for the Brazilian, effort alone has not been enough to get into the good books. That attitude may yet see Rafael try to stick it out. But with a year left on his contract and the fact that is still only 24, means that United may see cashing in on the full-back as the most sensible move.
His fearlessness will be missed. It is remarkable to consider that it has now been a full eight years since his arrival with his identical twin Fabio da Silva, now at Cardiff, even though their tender age meant they were both forced to wait until 2008-09 season for their debut. Rafael has always had the edge over his brother, making 109 appearances to his twin’s 22.
Antonio Valencia’s muscular, robotic discipline might not be to everyone’s tastes, but the Ecuadorian can generally be relied upon defensively. Responsibility, though, often seemed to come second in Rafael’s mind over scurrying, raiding aggression. It’s what made him exciting and terrifying in equal measure – but rawness has a shelf-life and Rafael has struggled to shake that impulsiveness.
If ever there was a performance that left Rafael exposed, it was the nightmare he was forced to endure against Real Madrid throughout United’s last-16 Champions League game in 2013 where the young man threw himself recklessly into challenges and was tormented by Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil down his right flank.
That performance suggested that Rafael did not have the requisite composure and nous to be able to compete against Europe’s elite. As Manchester United now have the Champions League to look forward to next season, it’s become clear that van Gaal doesn’t have Rafael as part of his plans.
At 24, Rafael should have little difficulty in finding a new path for his career. In a touching interview given by his twin in 2013, Fabio described the notion that they were unhappy apart from each other as false – quite the opposite, in fact – so a reunion is unlikely.
In any case, any club looking for a full back with hunger and explosiveness, with that quintessential South American determination – they need look no further than a player who, despite his flaws, was a popular figure at Old Trafford. The Stretford End will wish him well.