Over the past few seasons, Barcelona have suffered from a growing trend, that being the devaluation of wingers. With Ansu Fati and Ousmane Dembele being the sole players up to that task, the absence of either would frequently inflict serious damage in the team’s chance creation.
Yet come Xavi’s advent, the importance of wingers was revived. Stretching the pitch and attacking the space in behind, they have now taken up a major role in the team’s overall game. Thus, top-notch quality down the wings has turned into a prerequisite.
However, that quality is not quite abundant at Barca. Throughout this entire season, the Blaugrana have been clutching at straws to find any kind of consistency out wide, but to no avail.
Ansu Fati, bearer of the club’s bright future aspirations, has continued to be haunted by a chain of excruciating injuries. Whether that is simply a rough patch or a caveat of things to come is anyone’s guess. Evidently, the teenage prodigy’s fitness is no longer to be taken for granted.
The situation is only exacerbated by the flabbergasting news that broke not so long ago; Ousmane Dembele, seemingly on the path for long-awaited resurrection, refused to comply with the contract terms proposed by the board, meaning that the Frenchman looks very likely to depart for free in the upcoming summer.
While all of Ez Abde, Ferran Jutgla and Ilias Akhomach have done a sterling job when called upon, they are still too young and immature to consistently deliver at the highest level. Ferran Torres is thus the only dependable individual down the wings, and even he was possibly signed with the long-term ambition of developing into a centre-forward.
This dire situation forced Barcelona onto the transfer market. But, with limited options available mid-season, the club had to sign Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Adama Traore on loan. While he has been a very useful addition so far, there is no telling whether he will continue at the club permanently.
Logically, this suggests that signing a winger should be considered a priority for the upcoming transfer window. Yet with the board’s sights set on many reinforcements, finding a player that fits the bill both stylistically and financially is a big ask.
This automatically takes a handful of attractive options out of the equation. All but one, in fact: Leeds United’s main man Raphinha, remains a viable option. The Brazilian has already set a foot away from Elland Road, with the peacocks engaged in a scrap for survival.
In a gloomy period for his team, Raphinha has truly been a bright spark. In what has been a tough season for Leeds, he has always had a rabbit to pull out of his hat. To put things into perspective, his 12 goal contributions account for a staggering 39% of his team’s entire Premier League tally.
For Barcelona, a player of his profile would instantly elevate the team’s offensive quality. Wingers with such a vast repertoire are a rarity and add vital room to manoeuvre, given their multi-functionality. With Xavi’s concepts and tactical approach still relatively ambiguous, that would be a safe, yet top-class bet.
In this article, Barça Universal delves into a thorough analysis of Leeds United’s Raphinha and highlight the importance of his addition to the Catalans’ roster.
How does Xavi want wingers to operate?
Obviously, before analysing Raphinha as a separate individual, we would need to first examine what the coach’s demands are from wingers. Here, there is still a plethora of variables and unknowns to bear in mind.
Three months have sufficed for Xavi’s main ideology to coruscate through the stylistic chaos his predecessors left in their wake. However, there are still details yet to be concealed, such as specific functional and technical preferences. Thus, one can only work with the sample size on offer, and that does showcase some abstract tendencies.
There is something that the 42-year-old manager has already made abundantly clear: wingers are an essential cornerstone of his game. Unlike Ronald Koeman, he has emphasised the need for width, which has greatly enhanced Barcelona’s efficiency in numerous facets.
Having such outlets out wide is a key to unlocking rival defences. By stretching the pitch, they force the opposition to alter their shape upon reception. This sequence of events creates momentary turmoil, whether that be space in depth or in pockets of central space.
By nature, wingers are also fully entitled to take on their opponent(s). That not only provides a last resort in case all options are cut off but also helps destabilise the opposition, dragging the backline out of shape.
Moving on from general to specific details, one of the main hallmarks of Xavi’s wingers is their involvement in identifying the third man. Due to the threat that they pose, they inevitably draw numbers, thus temporarily liberating their partners. On and off the ball, their contribution has already been sizeable.
Here is one instance of wingers helping pinpoint and find the third man. Ferran Jutgla chests the ball down in an unfavourable spot, being forced to the flank.
This is precisely where Ousmane Dembele comes into play. Having already scanned his surroundings and identified Gavi as the free man, he opens up his body so as to make the pass at the first available opportunity. With the aid of a well-timed decoy run from Jutgla, the gap opens up for the ball to be threaded through.
The ball eventually finds its way to the 17-year-old, who is presented with an open field to progress into.
Even without being directly involved on the ball, wingers can manipulate the opponent, so as to free up vital space for their teammates.
In this instance, Jordi Alba receives the ball on the far side, with Ferran Torres positioned in the half-space. Yet, at this point, Rrahmani (the right centre-back for Napoli), has already recognised the danger the Valencian poses.
Smart as ever, Torres seizes the opportunity to bring Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang into the equation. With a rapid change of pace, he drags Rrahmani far and wide, which opens up the path for the Gabonese striker.
He is quicker to react, thus receiving the ball unchallenged, enabling him to carefully plot his next action.
Paradoxical though it may sound, wingers contribute just as much off the ball as on it. More often than not, their presence alone opens up opportunities for their teammates to find time and space. Under Xavi’s tutelage, Barcelona have particularly excelled at exploiting that virtue.
This instance is quite telling. Sergio Busquets identifies Gavi as his target, who is positioned far out of Toni Kroos’ reach. Naturally, Ferland Mendy would have been the one to step out of line to confront the 17-year-old, yet he is faced with an obstacle in the form of Abde.
His presence alone down the wing pins down his rival, thus nullifying Mendy’s impact on that phase of play.
Gavi controls the ball unrivalled, momentarily creating a perilous numerical advantage down the right flank.
Much to the coach’s credit, such examples of methodical chance creation have greatly increased in number. Undeniably, the introduction of pure wingers hugging the touchline has played its part.
However, Xavi is not restrictive when it comes to wingers’ roles. For all the advantages that they generate out wide, they can also be found wandering in central channels, whenever their presence there is needed.
Wingers are heavily dependent on the fullback’s positioning, always reacting to their partner’s runs accordingly. On this occasion, Jordi Alba is the one providing width and depth, which enables Ousmane Dembele to charge towards the space between the lines.
Upon reception, the Frenchman finds himself in a favourable position, with options either side of him. And, though the whole action goes up in smoke due to Dembele’s poor first touch, it was an inkling of the potential benefits of wingers’ freedom.
Xavi has adopted a sensible and perfectly operative approach with regard to wingers’ functions. While reaping the harvests of their finest qualities down the wings, he never restricts their free-flowing nature; a decision that has evidently paid off, with all of Dembele, Torres, Abde and Akhomach showing definite signs of improvement.
Another fascinating nuance of Xavi’s ideology is the way he deploys wingers during the press. Wide outlets are rarely the aggressors, dropping back into an agile and narrow mid-block instead.
This congests the central areas, blocking direct passing lanes to the midfield. The opponent is therefore obliged to build up through the flanks, from which it is far easier to manipulate the opposition and force errors.
Compactness, so vital to minimise the opponent’s chances of building up safely, is a burden mainly placed on wingers’ shoulders. They are the ones tasked with reacting to their teammates’ positioning, so as to maintain healthy distances between them. A meter shy can inflict a chain of events that may see an entire sequence of pressure go haywire.
Positional discipline and spatial awareness are what best defines Xavi’s priorities off the ball, and wingers, more than anyone, are obliged to tick all the boxes.
All of those tactical tweaks have made an enormous difference on both a collective and individual level. Whilst simultaneously bolstering the overall efficiency of the team’s setup, Xavi has favoured the singularity of the profiles at hand. Ousmane Dembele, in particular, has shone brighter than ever, with Adama Traore impressing on the regular, too.
However, Barcelona’s offensive efficiency still leaves plenty to be desired. More specifically, there is no difference-maker down the wing; a player whose sheer cutting edge would give the Blaugrana the qualitative high ground.
Ousmane Dembele has made strides as of late, yet is still plagued with the exact same struggles of the past: inconsistency and subpar decision-making. But him leaving would create a huge vacuum. Adama Traore has encountered similar problems, albeit in his case, sheer quality and then continuity is just as prominent a barrier.
Ansu Fati and Ferran Torres are two players destined for the pinnacle of success and have both proven dependable regardless of the circumstances. Yet both of them are assassins rather than creators, meaning one of them, if not both, is destined to make the transition to the number 9 role.
So, who could possibly provide that top-notch creative output that Barcelona are so desperately looking for? On the current roster, Ilias Akhomach is the sole candidature that springs to mind, yet at 17 years of age, he is still a year or two shy of that decisive step forward.
Despite the evident emphasis on the signing of a world-class striker, Barcelona could — and should, a priori — have sufficient funds to afford more attacking reinforcements. And out of all viable options, none is as tantalisingly tempting as Leeds United’s Raphael Dias Belloli, more commonly known as Raphinha.
Not only is the Brazilian endowed with remarkable quality, but he would also be a perfect stylistic fit for Barça. If truth be told, this is a quite unique market opportunity for the Catalans. It is thereby absolutely imperative that they pull out all the stops to secure his signature.
A match made in heaven?
Brazil has long been the breeding ground for elite creative wingers. Flair, trickery, explosiveness and an eye for the unthinkable being their trademark, the likes of Ronaldinho and Neymar have gone on to become crown jewels of the big stage.
Raphinha, along with Ajax starlet Antony, is perhaps an exception to the rule; not as flamboyant or keen to take players on, their primary strengths lay elsewhere.
What distinguishes them from the rest is their ability to flawlessly interpret the game and wreak havoc, whatever the circumstances. Their prowess in tight spaces, spacial awareness, exceptional distancing… Such players do not need to steal the headlines with fancy skills; their game is refined to the merest of details that are just as, if not more impactful.
Raphinha is a creative monster. His unconventional and simultaneously rapid thinking, coupled with his remarkable craft, never fails to hand him the high ground. In football, the quality of thinking one step ahead is an enormous advantage, and he embodies its unstoppable nature.
This instance is particularly indicative of the utter witchcraft that Raphinha’s game is. The fullback is isolated down the flank, without any safe enough passing lane. Throughout the entire sequence, the Brazilian operates in his marker’s blindside, which makes his movement impossible to track.
As soon as the opportunity arises, an abrupt change of direction momentarily detaches him from his mark. That, in turn, opens up a window of opportunity for the possessor to seize.
Raphinha opens up his body and, though the defender desperately tries to intercept the pass, that attempt proves futile. Upon reception, the number 10 has acres of space to himself, allowing him to orchestrate the play from there onwards.
On the ball, he is just as inventive. Receiving in tight spaces and at absurd angles is hardly a problem for the Brazilian — he can make anything work. He often uses his body orientation to decoy his opponents, a virtue he has evidently fine-tuned over the years.
In this sequence, he receives the ball at a rather awkward angle, with two opponents closing him down from either side. His only option (at first glance) is a safe pass back to Luke Ayling.
Heavy emphasis should, however, be placed on the parenthesis, because in Raphinha’s world, the unthinkable is the priority. A gentle dink suffices to leave his bewildered challengers behind, as he bursts off into the distance.
In this case, he manages to detach himself from his rival early on, giving him an edge over the defending team. The time and space he obtains are vital for the deconstruction of the rivalling block.
As his opponent closes him down, the right half-space is opened up. The midfielder makes the opposite run into the open field and, from then onwards, it is all a question of Raphinha’s quality.
Not a question, in fact. A slick backheel releases his partner into space, throwing the opposition structure into disarray.
It is exactly these moments of brilliance that highlight the extraordinary inventiveness that Raphinha is endowed with. The 25-year-old can consistently claw his way out of the toughest of situations, a crucial attribute in his locker. And, for any team, an X-factor of such calibre is a true godsend.
The Brazilian is equally valuable in progression. Racking up 5.16 progressive passes and 5.90 progressive carries per 90 according to fbref.com, he is frequently the mover and shaker of his team’s actions.
In high-pressure situations or enclosure, where the play can so often stagnate, Raphinha truly thrives. His unpredictability and unorthodox thinking frequently ease the pressure off his teammates and allow Leeds to find a second wind in attack.
His mind-boggling creativity is underpinned by his precision in decisive areas. The number 10 boasts an impressive 3.97 shot-creating actions and 0.28 xA per 90 — further proof of his clinical end product. For all the wit one may possess, you can only do so much without the quality to put it into practice. That quality is in abundance in Raphinha’s case.
On this occasion, the shrewd Brazilian finds himself in numerical inferiority down the right-hand side. The disadvantage is to soon turn into an advantage, though, as he detects Daniel James’ timely run in behind.
With a perfectly weighted pass, he finds his target on the move, creating a perilous situation out of virtually nothing.
Here, Raphinha is placed on the edge of the box, with runners awaiting his cross, albeit in quite unattainable positions. Yet his body orientation and weight distribution already spell danger.
The eventual ball is a thing of beauty, a form of wizardry. He finds Tyler Roberts in the corridor of uncertainty, with the ball falling exactly on his foot.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of his critical creativity is the sheer consistency with which he delivers sparks of magnificence. His final pass is polished to near perfection, which thoroughly justifies his audacity.
As the graph above indicates (Raphinha is at the top left corner), his daring nature definitely pays off for, more often than not, his exploits rhyme with noteworthy efficiency. High risk, high reward.
Another one of his outstanding virtues is his ability to thrive both down the touchline and in congested central areas. This could be notably useful in a side with versatile fullbacks and interiors. In Barcelona’s case, Pedri, Gavi, Dani Alves and Sergiño Dest all fit the bill nicely.
While dribbling is certainly not his forte (he has recorded a measly 42.5% successful dribbles rate), it is not a chink in his armour either. Paradoxically, he ranks in the 92nd percentile when it comes to shot-creating dribbles; proof that, when he succeeds, he does so emphatically.
In this instance, he receives the ball out wide and lures his opponent into a rash challenge. Having easily beaten him, he inevitably draws more numbers towards himself and away from his teammates.
Yet he continues his charge, enticing another rival into combat. He once again comes out unscathed, and instantly finds the overlapping Jamie Shackleton in acres of space. Once more, he manages to bypass defences with his craft and excellent awareness.
His soundness between the lines, too, is rather unblemished. Here he ventures into the thick of the action, scans his surroundings and then offers Kalvin Phillips a vertical passing lane.
Again, he orients his body to perfection, receiving on the half-turn with the ideal weight distribution.
A deft first touch frees him of the opponent pivot’s clutches, allowing him to charge towards the disadvantaged Everton defence. Such moves are a clear hallmark of truly great footballers.
As if the previously listed skillset was not rich enough, either way, Raphinha has another trick up his sleeve: his continuous, methodical movement.
In positional play, movement — whether that be on or off the ball — is of utmost importance. Ball circulation and progression demand constant creation of favourable passing lanes, and that can only be achieved via non-stop orderly motion.
A player’s movement always has to come in correspondence with his teammates’ actions, so as not to disproportionately congest certain areas. What a position-based game craves is harmony of motion, and that equally depends on the individual and the collective.
Raphinha’s movement, positioning and timing all set an exorbitantly high standard. He has an incredible understanding of where, when and how to attack space, making him a handful for his opponents to contain. Most importantly, he is always aware of where his teammates are, seamlessly adapting to their moves.
This time, the attacker receives the ball with his back to goal, with no support at all. Nevertheless, that is where Raphinha’s wit comes into play.
As Adam Forshaw offers a new passing lane down the touchline, the Brazilian bursts into the space in behind, offering a progressive option in an advantageous area.
His partner detects his run, subsequently playing a forwarded pass to the sprinting Raphinha. This allows Leeds to circumvent Crystal Palace’s structure from an initially inauspicious situation. A textbook manoeuvre, but a highly efficient one nonetheless.
When it comes to pressing, there is still more than enough room for improvement. Though his positioning is generally satisfactory, his lack of discipline and impatience frequently let him down.
This example is quite telling. Initially, the Leeds talisman positions himself commendably, maintaining a disciplined 2v3 pressing shape. However, a horizontal pass lures him out of position, as he makes a desperate attempt to intercept.
That attempt is all in vain, as the ball reaches its target, and its new possessor launches an assault that eventuates in a goal conceded for the peacocks. Impatience is detrimental.
Thankfully, that is an amendable weakness. When he does anticipate his opponents’ actions, he reaps the rewards, by virtue of his already decent starting position.
Here, he realises the possessor’s intentions early enough, and thus positions himself exceptionally and anticipates the eventual pass.
As expected, his patience pays off. He intercepts the pass, thus putting an end to a potentially fatal counter-attack.
Defending in a low block is undeniably Raphinha’s Achilles heel. Once again, his positioning is adequate, but his impatience and faulty judgment cancel out his carefully thought through placement.
It is an incredibly frustrating affair because he undeniably has the capacity to fare a lot better. In the picture above, his initial placement is excellent, yet he commits one lethal error — he awaits the pass flat-footed.
Consequently, his man receives the ball unchallenged in an extremely dangerous area.
Unfortunately, this has been a recurrent pattern in his game, rather than a one-off. Different game, same story: the 25-year-old completely misjudges Kieran Tierney’s run, an error that once again jeopardises his team’s security in goal.
Unlike any other area of the pitch, dicing with death is not an option against a deep block. There is simply no margin for error, and each mistake or misjudgment can prove costly. It is imperative he steps in that regard.
Even at first glance, Raphinha catches the beholder’s eye as a winger tailor-made for positional play. He instantly stands out for the size of his skillset, his astounding creativity and nonpareil clarity of thought. But a thorough analysis is there to validate or, conversely, refute that claim, and in this case, it is the former.
Examining Raphinha close up reveals that each and every nuance of his game makes him a perfect player for a well-structured positional game — and, by default, a team like Barça. He offers an outrageously rich palette of functions, most of which are geared to an incredibly high standard.
It is worth reiterating that even those qualities that are still far from perfect are amendable. Under the right coaching, the confrontation of his flaws would turn him from a first-rate winger into a world-beater and a footballer of the highest echelon.
Barcelona, on the path to an inevitable and overdue return to glory, look like the ideal destination. Xavi deploys a system that he would seamlessly adapt to and, further down the line, one that would elevate his game to lofty heights.
As heavenly a combination as it sounds, Barcelona are not the first, and definitely not the last of Raphinha’s suitors. Leeds United’s recent form suggests that becoming the peacocks’ mainstay is not the most auspicious prospect. This means that a monumental fight for his signature is bound to break out, and admittedly, rightly so.
Barcelona are (or should be, at least) aware of the necessity of signing a winger in the forthcoming summer, and there is no better candidate than the 25-year-old from Porto Alegre.
For that reason, they must throw themselves into the battle and fight tooth and nail in order to sign the Brazilian. From there onwards, it will be up to Raphinha himself. And, that being said without a shadow of a doubt: he will mark an era.