Norwich 1-2 Leeds: The Brazilian scored an excellent solo goal against Norwich City to inspire Marcelo Bielsa’s side to a much-needed win that takes them out of the relegation zone
Sunday afternoon’s Premier League meeting between Norwich City and Leeds United was the kind of listless, shapeless football match two teams can succumb to when their respective coaches are desperately trying to instil a system or playing style which, for whatever reason, just isn’t sticking.
Norwich are one of the poorest sides the division has seen in its almost 30-year history, of that there is no doubt, and their inability to compete with opponents week-after-week on a physical level is difficult to watch. They are slower, weaker, and possess less stamina than seemingly everybody they face, like a flyweight boxer who has been inexplicably added to the card for a heavyweight prize-fight bout.
Leeds, on the other hand, are coached by an enigmatic, meticulous coach in Marcelo Bielsa, whose decision to commit full-time to the 3-3-1-3 system which has defined his career has brought with it a significant amount of problems in their second season in the Premier League.
Last year Leeds were a bombastic, banzai outfit capable either of decimating an opponent with a flurry of goals in the space of ten minutes, or capitulating. Since the beginning of this campaign though they have struggled find the net, scoring ten in ten matches, and have lacked a focal point in attack without the injured England striker Patrick Bamford to call upon.
For the majority of this afternoon’s 2-1 victory over the Canaries at Carrow Road, they struggled with similar issues. Plenty of players struggled with their positioning in transitions between attack and defence, seemingly unaware of who they should be tracking or which passing lane they should be covering.
Space existed around the edge of the penalty area, with Kalvin Phillips the only true central midfielder in the Bielsa system, meaning the home side had a couple of good opportunities to open the scoring with efforts from mid-distance, which were drilled narrowly wide by Teemu Pukki and Mathias Normann. Leeds were structureless, unsure themselves, and quite impotent going forward.
That was until Raphinha, the kind of absolutely electric footballer who makes your heart beat faster and your eyes dart as soon as he picks up the ball, scored the kind of gorgeous individual goal that marked him out as not only the best player on the pitch, but the only one in the Leeds side capable of harnessing the chaos of their unusual system to positive effect.
The 24-year-old has impressed ever since his arrival from Stade Rennais just over a year ago, and this season is taking on an extra level of responsibility in a poorer, less-threatening side. This was an especially drab, lifeless game of football until he collected the ball on the right-hand side of the penalty area, glided past two defenders and a sliding tackle on his way into the penalty, and cut a sharp left-footed finish which precisely dissected a path between all three of Tim Krul, Ozan Kabak and Grant Hanley on its way into the net.
It was an immense few seconds of skill that rendered the entire ninety minutes’ football worthwhile. More goals followed, of course, but they were in comparison with the beauty of the first they were merely functional, error-strewn pieces of play which ultimately just made you want you want to watch replays of Raphinha’s over and over again.
Where players like Phillips, Stuart Dallas and Jack Harrison have seen the quality of their performances dip since the full-time introduction the shape Bielsa is convinced is the way forward for Leeds, Raphinha is managing to accentuate the positives by exploiting the extra space he has on his side of the pitch. As well as scoring his excellent goal the Brazilian made 11 dribbles throughout the match this afternoon and created the most chances of any player.
Scoring goals in a rambunctious, creative team enjoying its first season back in the top flight for nearly 20 years is one thing, but taking on the major responsibility when things are tough while embracing the pluses and minuses of the system is another entirely. He understands the movement of his team-mates in attack, how to draw a defensive line out of shape in order to create space, and how to make decision around the box, far better than any of his colleagues in this system right now.
Raphinha was already an outstanding player, and is now very quickly becoming one of the most thrilling , intelligent, and fun forwards to watch anywhere on the planet.