West Ham United v Leeds United - Why Raphinha is the star man for ‘Professor Bielsa’

When asked about the star of Leeds United’s first season back in the Premier League recently, Marcelo Bielsa was on typically modest form.

Star man: Raphinha having an effort deflected for a corner by Conor Coady of Wolverhampton. Picture: Sportimage
Star man: Raphinha having an effort deflected for a corner by Conor Coady of Wolverhampton. Picture: Sportimage

“I sincerely think I can add very little to his game,” he said after Raphinha’s virtuoso display against Southampton.

Unsurprisingly, the coach is often asked about his Brazilian winger. Just as Bielsa fascinates the footballing public, so they are interested to know more about the uncapped Brazilian winger Leeds plucked out of Ligue 1 football at £17m, a price which even by pandemic standards seems ludicrously small.

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Extracting praise out of Bielsa is often far from easy, but before tonight’s Premier League trip to West Ham United he was once more gushing about Raphinha.

Leeds United's Marcelo Bielsa: Praise for Brazilian.

“We’ve already seen what Raphinha is able to create,” he said. “He manages set-pieces very well. Physically, he’s very good.

“He can unbalance (opponents) individually or combine with his team-mates. I can’t think of many more things to add to an attacking player, but the most important thing is how many times those resources are shown in every game.”

As far as references go, it was pretty glowing.

But Bielsa, like everyone at the top of their sport, did not get where he is by settling for what he has. As a coach it is his job – and in his case his obsession – to get more from the resources available to him.

That was not quite the full quote.

His words came in response to a question about how much more the 24-year-old, who has scored five Leeds goals and made five more already in his debut season, is capable of.

The answer to that, according to Bielsa, “is whether he’s able to do it on a regular basis”.

So it turns out the man Raphinha affectionately calls ‘Professor Marcelo’ has some work to do after all. That could be a huge factor in Leeds’s favour this summer and in transfer windows to come.

The next goal for Raphinha is an obvious one, but not one he can achieve this season. South American football’s response to the unhappiness led by Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp about lending their players to Brazil and others this month only to have to wait an extra 10 days of quarantining to get them back has led to the postponement of the latest batch of international fixtures.

No matter how much he has caught the eye this season, there is no chance of Raphinha jetting to his homeland and playing in any hyper-competitive fixtures – World Cup qualifiers against Colombia and Argentina had been in the diary – instead staying in Yorkshire for some well-earned and no doubt hugely beneficial rest.

It is something he will be looking to tick off the list later, though.

“Like any Brazilian player, I dream of representing the Selecao, of putting the shirt on and representing my country,” he said in one of the least surprising comments ever made by a professional footballer.

There is a strong case for saying his best chance of achieving it is by continuing to work with former Argentina and Chile coach Bielsa. It is a case Leeds may find themselves having to make forcefully to his agent at some point.

English football has sat up and taken notice of Raphinha this season – who could turn a blind eye to his adventurous dribbling, his crossing, his free-kicks and that outrageous backheeled nutmeg on Crystal Palace’s Gary Cahill?

If the recruitment departments of big clubs did not make discreet enquiries about the possibility of signing him in the next transfer window, they would not be doing their jobs properly.

Raphinha might be under contract but that only guaranteed Leeds can name their price.

But in Bielsa, Leeds have a huge trump card. Almost without exception, their players talk about how the idiosyncratic coach has made them better.

Last week, Raphinha spoke about embracing and being embraced by his new football club and city, about wanting to stay. He was hardly likely to say the opposite to his employers’ official website. Many a player has trotted out such lines, only to disappear over the horizon at the first hint of a signing-on fee.

If Raphinha is the person we all hope, improving as a player should be his driving force and he is in a great place to learn.

“Professor Marcelo is a really demanding coach and I personally like that,” he said. “I like working with demanding coaches.

“He always wants to see us do our best and that’s been really important ever since I arrived here at the club. He’s helped me with advice about positioning on the pitch and provided me with the freedom to be myself and I think that’s really important for a player, that you’re working with someone always demanding the best.

“We all benefit from that. Everybody’s a winner.”

Leeds, like tonight’s hosts, have shown themselves to be upwardly mobile this season but the gap to England’s elite is still a yawning one. Whenever one of their players shows exceptional qualities, the vultures are seldom far away.

The Whites do not yet have the finances to keep them at bay but in Bielsa they have something more valuable.

At this stage of his career, chasing caps should be more important than chasing money for Raphinha. Another year studying under the professor is an appealing prospect. Everyone really would be a winner.

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