EPL

Raphinha the bright spot in a bleak season for Bielsa and Leeds United

By Sports Desk December 17, 2021

Marcelo Bielsa was typically honest as he faced questions about his future. After all, they were inevitable after the 7-0 battering by Manchester City earlier this week.

While Leeds fans might try to convince you it was a less frustrating match than their late 3-2 defeat to Chelsea at the weekend, from the outside it looked as bleak as it gets.

"Do you think that after suffering a 7-0 defeat I can discard the instability?" Bielsa asked on Thursday. "Do you think there's a coach that can't be sacked, who is unsackable? Do you think I'm so vain that I think I can't be sacked?"

Given everything Bielsa's done for Leeds in his four years, it might be fair enough to ponder whether he was untouchable or not, but Tuesday was grim.

It was Leeds' joint-heaviest defeat ever in the Football League/Premier League and the first time Bielsa conceded seven goals in one match over his entire management career – that equates to 568 matches.

While it was only the first time Leeds have suffered back-to-back league losses this term, defeat to City was the continuation of an unequivocally bad start to the season.

Great expectations

In all competitions, Leeds have won just four matches in 90 minutes and only one of those has come since the start of November.

Things don't look much more encouraging this weekend either as they face Arsenal. A third defeat in a row could potentially leave them just two points above the bottom three at Christmas.

Injuries aren't helping their cause, with as many as seven players set to miss out this weekend and Junior Firpo is suspended. Among the absentees is Patrick Bamford, the scorer of 17 Premier League goals last season.

He's already missed a chunk of the season, featuring just six times in the Premier League, perhaps going some way to explaining some of Leeds' issues.

Their injuries, form and proximity to the bottom three are all putting extra expectation on one player.

Raphinha wasn't exactly an unknown when he joined Leeds – Rennes and Ligue 1 are hardly 'obscurity', but he's undoubtedly seen his reputation grow exponentially during his 14 months in England.

His debut season was very promising as Raphinha managed to combine the work rate demanded in a Bielsa team with on-the-ball flair and an eye for the spectacular.

Feisty, flamboyant and forceful – Leeds fans could barely believe they'd managed to retain him when the most recent transfer window shut.

Among the league's most-crucial players

It's fair to say he picked up where he left off, having already surpassed last season's goals total when his penalty against Chelsea took him to seven in 15 games.

Though, with Bamford missing, Raphinha is having to operate slightly differently due to there being the need to pick up the slack caused by absences.

Given Bamford's injury problems, it's unsurprising to see Raphinha's shot frequency has increased from 2.6 to 3.1 every 90 minutes and that's probably had a knock-on effect to his creativity.

His two chances created on a per-90-minute basis is down slightly from 2.4 – similarly, his expected assists (xA) has also decreased fractionally to 0.22 from 0.26. Of course, he probably would have been aided in this area had Leeds' best striker been available all season – rather, Raphinha's the one having to lead from the front and be a creative spark.

An increase in touches per game (59.9 to 63) suggests greater general influence, and while that's not translated to more key passes or assists, Raphinha's importance is further highlighted by his involvement Leeds' build-up play.

He's been involved in 592 open play passing sequences this term, a figure only four players designated as strikers or wingers can better. Among the same group, only eight have played a part in more sequences that ended in a shot than the Brazilian (74) and six of those represent members of the so-called 'big six'.

Raphinha's explosive talents and ball carrying skills make him a great asset when Leeds are trying to relieve pressure and get back up the pitch, but we can also see that his team-mates recognise his usefulness when they're trying to retain the ball.

There's a case to be had that, relative to their respective teams, Raphinha is among the most crucial players in the Premier League – after all, since his first start in November 2020, only five players have had a hand in more non-penalty goals than him (21).

While Arsenal may not be the force they once were, beating the Gunners would be a significant feat for Leeds when you consider their current form.

Raphinha was quiet in the mauling by City, failing to register a single shot or key pass, a performance he'll surely be eager to prove was a one-off.

And if anyone can get Leeds out of their slump by terrorising an Arsenal side often accused of lacking personality, it's Raphinha.

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