Raphinha essential in Rennes’ Champions League-qualifying-campaign

Raphinha, or Raphael Dias Belloli, comes off an impressive first season in the French Ligue 1. The Brazilian clocks 1,690 minutes for Rennes, his highest tally since his European career began in 2016. Five goals and three assists are nothing to sniff at, but his underlying data tell an even better story.

Raphinha joined Rennes about a year ago, just before the closing of the transfer window. He came in from Sporting Portugal as a replacement for Watford-bound Ismaïla Sarr, setting Les Rennais back a record fee of €21 million. Rennes would become more versatile, and Raphinha in particular would add more decisiveness in front of goal, head coach Julien Stéphan proclaimed.

Raphinha creates more shots than Memphis

Raphinha is the attacking player with the most minutes for Rennes during the 2019-2020 season, next to Senegalese forward M’Baye Niang. He ranked 3rd for both goals and assists within the squad, indicating Rennes’ reliance on him as a finisher and creative outlet. However, Rennes’ 3rd place as the league was halted due to COVID-19 was mostly the result of a sound defence. Their goals against ranks them 2nd in the league, while their goals scored only puts them up in 7th place.

Furthermore, Raphinha leads the Rennes squad in both 0.3 expected assists and 2.18 key passes per 90 minutes. His expected assists are league-wide only bettered by the infamous Paris Saint-Germain front three of Ángel Di María, Kylian Mbappé and Neymar, and Marseille star Dimitri Payet, while his total of 41 key passes puts him among the ten best key passers in the league.

Attacking threat in passive approach

These numbers are extraordinary when you consider Rennes as a team had on average far less possession of the ball than Paris Saint-Germain or Marseille. It shows when Rennes do have the ball, they are very effective in finding their creative men and Raphinha does an excellent job in finding the right passes forward. This is visible in his shot creating actions as well, the playmaker creates 4.9 shots per 90 minutes for his teammates, which puts him 5th for the league overall.

The problem here is that all these created shots and key passes rarely result in a goal for Rennes. Raphinha is nowhere to be found in the top rankings of goal creating actions or actual assists. Forward M’Baye Niang puts up the highest expected goals (without penalties) of 7.9, which is still lower than 17th placed Metz forward Habib Diallo (who admittedly had a great season as well). Rennes also rank among the bottom teams for touches in the final third and in the penalty area.

Rennes are a team that qualified for the Champions League next season utilising a passive approach and a low defensive block when the opponent has the ball, while relying heavily upon, mostly, Raphinha when they transition to attack. These counter-attacks are where Raphinha showcases his speed and dribbling ability, as well as his ability to pick out a teammate in front of goal.

An unexpected trademark cross

He also excels at drawing defenders in, while already knowing where space will be to dribble into or which teammate will have extra room to play with. This ability to create advantageous situations out of seemingly thin air is particularly useful in a side that doesn’t offer much in terms of creativity.

According to Raphinha’s passing stats, he does have a strong preference to use his left foot, which could be cause for concern. It’s often the case that, when opposing defences figure out an attacker’s preferred move, they become fairly predictable and much easier to deal with. Raphinha however, while being heavily left-footed, manages to switch up his ways of attack.

As he often starts on the right side of the field, his natural instinct is to cut inside and let his left foot do its magic. He also does a good job faking passes or shots before cutting back onto his right foot again and carrying on the attack. This cleverness makes him much more unpredictable and gives him extra options to beat his man. One of his favourite moves when he does end up on his right foot, is to cross the ball low and hard towards the six-yard box. All in all, he is fairly two-footed, but he prefers his natural left foot whenever possible.

Rennes out of possession is more than just Camavinga

Rennes proved a sturdy defence during the 2019-2020 season, in which every player played his part. Raphinha usually falls back into the right-midfielder slot in a 4-4-2, absorbing the opposition’s pressure. He won 1.06 tackles per 90 minutes, and regained possession after applying pressure 4.95 times per 90 minutes.

These numbers show he plays a vital part in regaining possession for Rennes. Although they don’t come close to prodigy Eduardo Camavinga, who attempts an obscene 4.19 tackles per 90 minutes, and winning back the ball with 2.48 of them.

What’s next for Raphinha?

Raphinha seems to be one of the most valuable assets within the Rennes squad, both financially and technically. He is a standout performer, as is supported by his creativity statistics and his contributions to shots taken by Rennes. He knows his defensive duties and shows excellent tactical discipline by helping his team stay in shape out of possession. While it’s apparent he prefers his left, his weaker right foot is strong enough to mix up his moves and surprise defenders.

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His actual output is similar to his predecessor Ismaïla Sarr’s, before the Senegalese played a season that got him his move to the Premier League. One could argue Raphinha isn’t too far behind. Rennes made a healthy profit on Sarr, and is probably not settling for anything less on Raphinha. This might complicate any moves anytime soon, as the pandemic has impacted transfer budgets everywhere (edit: I might have underestimated the mighty Premier League money here).

An extra year in France is probably for the best, as it gives Raphinha more opportunity to hone his skill and become more decisive, before considering moving up the ladder in Europe’s top leagues. However, should an attacking spot open up in a more dominant side, it will be very interesting to see what the Brazilian talent brings to the table.

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