Who remembers when each team had a flair player? The likes of Jay-Jay Okocha, Hatem Ben Arfa and Juninho? Many may believe those days are gone, but Leeds United’s Raphinha is out to prove otherwise.
They were never the most conventionally effective footballers, but their ability to capture your imagination was something to behold. It’s sad to see that their numbers in the Premier League have been slowly but surely declining.
A growing preference for hard working athletes seems very apparent. It’s been going on for a while, an earlier example being Jose Mourinho’s treatment of Juan Mata. Mata wasn’t a “flair player” by definition, he was very technically skilled, but didn’t put in the defensive shift that Mourinho wanted. So, he was dropped and subsequently sold.
Mourinho was setting a precedent for creative attacking players who did not possess a high work rate off the ball. Do the work, or go elsewhere. Many other Premier League managers have similar approaches, where unquestioning tactical totalitarianism reigns supreme. A key proponent of this is Leeds United manager, Marcelo Bielsa.
What a campaign it’s been for Leeds. After years of toiling around in the Football League, this year feels like a deserved payoff for the Elland Road masses.
A major part of their tenacious season has been their stellar recruitment. Many teams, when making the jump from the Championship, simply do not have the resources to compete.
Leeds spent shrewdly, didn’t rely too much on their summer signings and sit comfortably in 10th. They are already mathematically safe from relegation. Bielsa’s system works, there’s little doubt about that.
How are these two things related? It’s simple – Leeds United’s Raphinha.
Leeds United’s Raphinha: The Player Adding Flair to Bielsa’s Side
How Does Leeds United’s Raphinha Benefit the System?
As mentioned earlier, a big part of Leeds’ success this year is the uniform adherence to Bielsa’s system. They clearly have the utmost respect and trust in their manager, and it’s reflected in their stout-hearted performances.
An approach like this can be limiting to a player’s creative output. However, Bielsa has no problem with allowing his team to express themselves. It’s this that has allowed Leeds to outscore the likes of Everton and Arsenal over the course of the season.
It’s a system with balance. Leeds United’s players are rigorously drilled, but Raphinha adds a level of unpredictability to their attacks. An x-factor like Raphinha can be invaluable when trying to unlock the Premier League’s most robust of defences.
Something else to note – generally, Bielsa will select players who have been at the club longer over new signings. This was shown early in the season, when he elected to play Patrick Bamford over the newly signed Rodrigo. Raphinha has not had this issue breaking into the first team, which shows the faith the Argentine has in him.
Furthermore, it also displays that creative, individualistic players can still have a place in a well-disciplined team. As English clubs tend to look at how teams perform as a collective, rather than banking on individuals, this is crucial for the future of flair players.
What Does the Future Hold for Raphinha and Flair Players?
It’s good to see exciting players like Raphinha making a comeback in the game. He’s not alone – Eberechi Eze at Crystal Palace is another great example.
Eze is a consistent joy to watch. He’s very comfortable and composed on the ball, can drive forward through teams and has an eye for goal. Three goals and three assists so far isn’t bad for a young player’s first Premier League season.
Too many flair players, Raphinha included, have been unfairly dubbed ‘luxury players’. Managers want every player on the pitch to defend and press hard these days. Anyone not contributing to this is labelled a liability, regardless of their goal contributions.
Raphinha has six goals and six assists for Leeds this year. That’s not a negligible amount, certainly not something you’d brand a ‘luxury’.
Will flair players enjoy a full resurgence in the Premier League? It’s uncertain. Trends come and go in football and currently, we’re in the era of Gegenpress. A hard pressing, high energy style of play, where space is limited, doesn’t suit tricky players.
Flair players bring a level of excitement to the game that currently seems to be lost. Watching teams counterattack with fluidity and coherence can be exhilarating, but what about watching one man beat five players alone? You rarely see such a thing in a modern football and it’s a crying shame.
The footballing zeitgeist does not currently favour skilful players. Even legendary tricksters like Cristiano Ronaldo have gradually phased out their flair. However, they’re not extinct. Raphinha is a breath of fresh air in the Premier League. He’s a joy to watch, has a strong end product and sets a positive example for the future.
Let’s remember why we all love football. Would you rather watch eleven James Milners or eleven Raphinhas? You decide.
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