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Rafinha Rising: Does He Deserve A First Team Spot?

With the 4-0 victory against his former club, Rafinha's stock is rising fast. Does he deserve a week-in, week-out spot in the starting XI?

Juergen Schwarz

Sometimes one has to catch the right wave to surf his or her way to a good place.

With the demand for holding midfielders, Rafinha paddled along with the high-profile Philipp Lahm move to midfield, and now his stock has just caught a wave.

How long will the ride last? Right now, Rafinha's case to play is hard to argue against. Even Pep Guardiola thinks so.

"Rafinha is a super player," Guardiola said, "I was surprised by his performance today and in the last few months." [Sport Bild]

While Lahm is the evident first choice right back, Rafinha's contributions thus far has not been too far behind. FC Bayern as a team has allowed only three goals in all competitions when Rafinha is on the pitch. He has not been particularly good in the air, Rafinha has been winning 54.5 percent of his ground tackles while yet to see a yellow card in the Bundesliga – Lahm's ground tackle win percentage is 55.8 percent, and both are well above average for Bundesliga wing-backs this season.

What is bigger is that Rafinha has the backing of his manager. Guardiola's choice of playing Schweinsteiger in the line of four of the 4-1-4-1 on Sunday was a major endorsement for Rafinha. While maybe opponent oriented – Rafinha did play at FC Schalke 04 after all – taking Thomas Müller off the pitch instead of Rafinha spoke volumes, although a squad rotation against Hanover 96 on Wednesday could turn the volume back down.

With all that in mind, Rafinha is still in a tough spot. The midfield will clog up again once Mario Götze, Thiago Alcântara, and Javier Martínez return from injury, although some believe Rafinha's success casts doom over the injured getting their spots back.

Guardiola will face a similar predicament to ones Jupp Heynckes had last season. Injuries to Mario Gómez and Arjen Robben opened the door for first team minutes for Mario Mandžukić, Müller, and Toni Kroos. Once the injured came back, Heynckes elected to keep the hot players in, which led to some complaints and eventual transfers.

Rafinha's case is more unique this time around. Not only are all three midfield players recent high-priced transfers, but all three will require a strong presence on the team sheet. This is not just one or two players fighting for a spot or two, but three players fighting for one spot.

The Brazilian looks ready to compete, though, especially in a World Cup year. Brazil's first team right back spot is not for sale, with FC Barcelona's Dani Alves owning a monopoly on the first team minutes. The second spot in Felipe Scolari's World Cup team is still up for grabs, though, a further incentive for Rafinha to remain competitive in the squad.

"The first right back for Brazil is Dani Alves from Barcelona, but who will travel to the World Cup as the second right back is still not clear. Who knows: if I continue to play, it could be that I would be allowed to go." said Rafinha to Sport Bild.

A fiction more than a fact? Maybe, but considering AS Roma defender Maicon's injury track record and no established third option, Bayern could have two defenders represent Brazil in June.

Rafinha's squad selection depends on Lahm, a man showered in praise for his football intelligence at multiple positions. After his success in midfield, Lahm may not have a best position anymore, but he is the best right back on the team. If Guardiola feels Lahm is the best suited for the squad at right back, Rafinha will have to wear a sideline pinny.

A factor that is still in Rafinha's corner is that Guardiola will likely give Schweinsteiger, Martínez, and Thiago (when he is fully healthy) inconsistent playing time in order to ease them back from injury. That gives Rafinha a big enough window to intrench himself a little deeper, although that window closes faster the more Martínez and Thiago progress.

Guardiola has had some easy squad decisions to make with options on the shelf, and Rafinha will have to continue his good form to stay in the manager's good graces.

Does Rafinha's rise have a ceiling? As long as the wave does not break, he can stay on his board and ride it.

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