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Raphinha Showeth And Raphinha Taketh Away

Leeds United player Raphinha celebrates his goal during the Premier League match between Leeds United and West Ham United at Elland Road on September 25, 2021 in Leeds, England.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

I hope you’ve made time to watch Leeds this season, especially if you are not a Leeds fan yourself. For those with a rooting interest, this campaign has been bittersweet: bitter because it’s largely been a bad one results-wise, with major injuries to Patrick Bamford, Kalvin Phillips, and Liam Cooper leaving the Whites without three of the most pivotal figures in last year’s season of magic; sweet because it’s still Leeds, still in the Premier League, still playing that now-famous style of deliberate madness which has brought success on the pitch, identity to the club, and undying passion between those who play and those who support. But if you only care about entertainment, Leeds’s season has been amazing. The team’s aforementioned deliberate madness has resulted in unhinged, wide-open contests almost every single time out. With a league-leading 96 combined goals (31 scored, 65 conceded), no team in the competition can match the sheer amount of action present whenever Leeds takes the pitch.

This past weekend was more of the same. On Sunday, the Whites welcomed Norwich to Elland Road and were able to grab their first Premier League win since last month’s unfortunate but probably necessary departure of beloved manager Marcelo Bielsa. With a final scoreline of 2–1, the number of goals was slightly below the team’s average of about 3.3 total goals per match. The match did not, however, stint on the drama. After taking an early lead, just when it looked like Leeds had gagged up what would’ve been a crucial three points after a Norwich stoppage-time equalizer, the home team stormed back with a stoppage-time winner, sending the always rowdy Elland Road crowd into a state of roaring bliss.

The MVP on the winning goal was definitely its scorer, Joe Gelhardt. New manager (and America’s very own!) Jesse Marsch’s first reaction to the Norwich goal was to send on the teenaged Gelhardt in a substitution that made all the difference. It was Gelhardt who attacked the header that turned a long punt into a dangerous chance, and Gelhardt who finished the move he started with the tap-in. Still, it was the assist man, Raphinha, who deserved the most credit for the win.

In the absence of Bamford, the team’s one true goalscorer, Raphinha has had to lug the bulk of Leeds’s attacking load this season. It hasn’t been easy, but thanks to the Brazilian’s plentiful abilities, it has so far proven just about enough. Raphinha is the team’s top scorer, its highest assister, its most voluminous shooter, its biggest chance-creator, and its most effective dribbler. Wriggling out of all those tight jams and lumping in all those key passes to the likes of Daniel James and Rodrigo—solid players in their own right, but more complimentary than decisive—hasn’t exactly resulted in an explosion of goals for a team whose frenetic pace of play relies on outscoring the opposition, but it has thus far kept Leeds just above the relegation spots. It has also resulted in some stunning individual highlights for Raphinha himself.

It has to be so confusing to guard Raphinha, who has that special gift for dribbling. He uses his masterful ball control, his elastic body, and his quickness of movement to bombard defenders with information—all of it contradictory—until they are utterly overwhelmed. One instant he’s upright, escorting the ball at a jog, then he’s hunched over and dragging the ball about with pitter-patter touches, then he bends himself into an exaggerated rightward lean and lets the ball carry at a seemingly careless, tantalizing distance from his left foot, and before the defender can even fully comprehend why he’s about to reach in for a tackle, Raphinha has already sliced inside to the left, leaving the defender for dead. Watch any sufficiently long highlight compilation of his and you’ll be astounded by how often he puts defenders on their asses. His videos should come soundtracked not by bad electronica, but the thrum and crackle of high-voltage electrical wires.

Raphinha’s ability to dribble like this in tight spots is the biggest reason why he’ll soon trade Leeds’s relegation fight for his next club’s title race. But maybe the most visually arresting move of his is one he does in wide open spaces. It’s the little “now you see it, now you don’t” move he put on the Norwich keeper on Sunday, which is something straight out of Houdini’s bag of tricks:

Dribbling itself is an act of deception, of baiting a defender into committing and then eluding that commitment. But the way Raphinha does it with that move is just downright rude. It’s just how unsubtle it is that makes it. It’s like he intentionally runs up to the guy, saying, “OK look, I’m going to put the ball right in front of you. No tricks, I promise. Look, here it is. Take it! Go ahead, try!” And when the opponent bites, Raphinha steps in and sweeps the ball away to safety, leaving the defender completely humiliated in the knowledge that he never even had a chance.

Raphinha had a similar one in a match against West Ham back in January. Surging down the pitch with Issa Diop trying to squire him away from the center of the field, Raphinha slowed his gait, drifted closer to Diop, put the ball right inside the defender’s tackling radius, and then just skipped away from Diop’s challenge as if it was nothing. Just look at him do it, and think how powerless you’d feel if he’d done it to you!

Raphinha is a real marvel. He plays cool, he looks cool (the all-white kit, the white socks pulled up all the way over his knees, the tattoos that peak out between the socks and the short shorts), and he constantly does cool things. His left foot is capable of the softest little caresses and also of thundering booms. His dribbling is supreme, up to the task whether the moment calls for subtlety or its opposite. His career is like his runs: You don’t know how, you don’t know when, and you don’t know where, but eventually he’s going to make his move, and there’s absolutely no stopping it.

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