In Rafa’s fifth season with United, he’s made that critical transition from youngster with potential to essential first-team regular.
Prior to 2012/13 the most he’d played in a season was 28 games; this campaign he has nailed the right-back spot and is on course to pass 40 appearances, the benchmark of a major contribution.
Injuries to Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, two of Sir Alex’s other right-back options, may have made it easier for Rafael to make the position his own, but the Brazilian has taken his opportunity with panache.
He’s been better than ever with his daredevil forward raids, but there’s been a noticeable step-up in his work at the other end of the field too.
He’s an exuberant player – that’ll never change – but he’s added a maturity that means the risky tackle he might previously have barrelled into can now be eschewed for a safer option. The sky is the limit from here.
Champagne moment: It’d be criminal to overlook his cannonball of a goal at QPR. But to illustrate his value at both ends he also cleared one off the line in that game, something he’s done a number of times this season from his station guarding the post at corners.
Season in three words: Rafa’s big breakthrough.