While Barcelona has struggled to keep up with eternal rival Real Madrid in La Liga, in Vigo, the loaned-out Rafinha Alcantara has played arguably the greatest football of his career and was also named the player of the month in February by the LFP.
The stand-out performances throughout the campaign have made Rafinha a transfer target for clubs in England, some of which are reportedly willing to pay his buy-out clause of 30M, but the one that may need him the most next season is Barcelona itself.
Rafinha has played practically everywhere on the pitch this season. Mainly known as an attacking midfielder, he has also impressed on the right flank, and in a 1-0 loss to Elche he spent most of the first half as a false 9. The player has been praised for his versatility and ability to unlock defenses with dribbles – much like his Barcelona idol Andrés Iniesta – and the praise has been well deserved.
While the halo around the Brazilian has kept growing, the comparison with brother Thiago – now at Bayern Munich – has been inevitable. The older Alcantara brother’s departure left a hole in Barcelona’s midfield – whether they like to admit it or not – and Rafinha has been tipped to fill that hole once he returns to wear the red and blue stripes. But although the brothers undoubtedly share a close relationship, they’re not exactly the same at all.
As far as their career choices go, the two couldn’t be much more different. Both have the nationalities of both Spain and Brazil, and while Thiago chose to represent Spain on an international level – to his Brazilian father Mazinho’s disappointment – Rafinha has chosen the “Seleção Brasileira”. While Thiago chose to leave Barcelona for Bayern in quest of playing time (and of course, to play a big role in the club’s success), Rafinha chose to leave on loan to gain experience and to return to Barcelona to fight for his spot in the team.
The playing styles of the two resemble each other: Both like to get the ball to their feet, both pass it with precision and like to open the field up with a dribble every now and then. However, while Thiago is – on top of his attacking abilities – capable of orchestrating the midfield from a deep position, Rafinha likes a more advanced and attacking role, at least for now. On the other hand, while both share a good stamina and are relatively pacy, it’s Rafinha who perhaps possesses the greatest physical attributes and is not only taller, but also has a more physical presence that has seen him win most of his physical battles on the field as well.
So while the two share some of the same traits and even the same kind of posture on the field, they’re not the same kind of players. Thus, perhaps it’s not Rafinha who will fill the hole left by Thiago. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect him to slot into an orchestrating role straight away, although considering the versatility he has already displayed, such could easily happen one day in the future. But after all the conclusion is easy to make. Rafinha is Rafinha, not a “Thiago 2.0″.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it? There’s still a plenty more that Rafinha will bring to Barcelona, and conveniently for the blaugrana, some of those things are exactly what the Catalan giants need at the moment.
No one will argue that the likes of Xavi and Andrés Iniesta have been instrumental in shaping the current Barcelona, and that Cesc Fábregas has been one of the best midfielders in Europe this season, but what’s also difficult to argue is that the Barcelona midfield has struggled against its most physical opponents and the usage of Alex Song next to Sergio Busquets hasn’t resulted in great success. The Catalans need another option in the midfield, someone dynamic, someone physically up for the challenge both in attack and defense, and of course, someone good enough with the ball for Barcelona’s standards. Rafinha fits the bill.
Not only does Rafinha have 4 goals and 4 assists to his name, average 1.5 key passes and 2.5 dribbles per game, he also averages 2.4 tackles and 1.4 interceptions per game. The defensive figures are over twice as high as Barcelona’s Xavi and Cesc’s, for example, and while the statistics alone are misleading due to the differences in Barcelona and Celta’s game, they go to show the physical side of Rafinha’s game that makes him far from a liability in the defensive end.
The latest reports suggest that Barcelona are willing to welcome the Brazilian back with open arms for next season, and while that may put question marks over the future of the likes of Sergi Roberto and Alex Song, Rafinha is a player Barcelona desperately needs for next season. Not only to allow Xavi more rest, but to add something of his own. And while one Alcantara brother was let go of, Rafinha is someone the Catalans must hold on to.
What still remains very much open is how Rafinha would be used should he return to Catalonia. Would he be converted into a deeper, Xavi-esque role, in order to develop his abilities in that position for a future takeover? Or would he be allowed to use his greatest strength, the ability to turn a midfield possession into a penetration to the attacking third, and in that case, would Barcelona perhaps consider a different type of midfield purchase in form of the like of Dortmund’s Ilkay Gundogan? Lots of questions remain, and Barcelona’s announcement on the ability to purchase 4-6 players in the summer surely doesn’t make the speculation any easier.
What is easy, however, is to conclude that Rafinha’s performances make him one of the greatest prospects in European football, and just as easy it is to forget that the La Masia graduate is only playing his first season in the Spanish top flight. Offers from various different clubs are likely to pile up on top of his desk when the summer arrives, and whoever gets to enjoy from Rafinha’s performances in the following season will have quite a capture in their hands. Barcelona, having made a renewal with their jewel until 2016, have all ropes in their hands as they try to make sure that they’re that precise club.