Rafael Da Silva describes himself as a “quiet guy” but that doesn’t mean he has nothing to say. Part of Manchester United‘s last Premier League title-winning squad in 2013, he has watched from afar as his former club have slipped from the top of domestic and European football.
Without a title for seven years, overtaken in England by Manchester City and Liverpool and not even regular qualifiers for the Champions League let alone contenders, the Brazilian, who was sold to Lyon by Louis van Gaal in 2015, says he has seen plenty of mistakes made at Old Trafford as United have attempted to recover from the loss of Sir Alex Ferguson.
“It has taken too long to get back on track,” Rafael tells ESPN. “It’s been seven years [without a Premier League title]. We did some things wrong. We started signing expensive players and giving them a lot of money. I don’t agree with that. Just because a player costs £150 million does not mean he’s good for the team. It depends on the character of the player.”
Since Ferguson’s retirement in 2013, four different managers — David Moyes, Van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and incumbent Ole Gunnar Solskjaer — have spent close to £900m on players with little to show for it. Two of the most expensive — Angel Di Maria (£59.7m from Real Madrid in 2014) and Romelu Lukaku (£75m from Everton in 2017) — have already left. Record signing Paul Pogba (£89.3m from Juventus in 2016) has publicly courted a move away.
Ferguson was never shy of spending money either but Rafael believes since the Scot’s departure, United have lost sight of the best way to build a successful team.
“I think that’s where we made mistakes, we start to just buy players,” he said. “I think it has to be a mix. You have to buy some expensive players but not all. I am a supporter too and I know they want the best players but let’s see if he’s the best player for Manchester United, let’s see if he is going to work.
“They should go for the players who want to play for Manchester United. Not just because Manchester United are going to pay you. Look at Chicharito. How hard did he play for Manchester United? He wanted to play. How much did Manchester United pay for him? Not much. You have to be clever. You have to see that the player wants to play for Manchester United.”
Rafael has seen progress since Solskjaer, his former reserve team coach, replaced Mourinho in December 2018 but ahead of another pivotal transfer window, he has a warning for the Norwegian and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward as they decide on their top targets.
I think that’s where we made mistakes, we start to just buy players. I think it has to be a mix. You have to buy some expensive players but not all.
“Harry Kane is a great goal scorer and Jadon Sancho is very, very good,” he says. “But first of all you have to see the character of the player and see if they really want to do well for United, not just coming for the money. We have made some mistakes but I hope now that we can get back on track. In this Manchester United, I see more of how they played before and I think soon we will be back where we belong.
“I love Ole. I love the person he is and the manager he is. Of course, there is a lot still to do but I think he’s doing it the right way. He’s a person who loves Manchester United and he’s going to do everything to help the club. I saw it when I was with him when he coached me and it is important.
“He’s a guy who is going to think about Manchester United first rather than himself. A lot of coaches are never going to do that, they are going to think about them and after about the club.”
A lot of the blame for United’s decline has been aimed at Ferguson’s successors in the Old Trafford hot seat.
Rafael, who arrived from Brazil as a teenager with twin brother Fabio in 2008, played under Moyes and Van Gaal before moving to Ligue 1 for a knockdown £2.5m and the right-back, who won three titles, the League Cup and Club World Cup during his time in England, believes they were faced with a near-impossible task.
“When [Sir Alex] left it was a shock to everyone,” Rafael said. “For him it was good because he left having passed Liverpool for the most titles but for me I would have loved for him to stay for three or four more years. It was definitely a shock, not just for me but for all of the players.
“Many things happened [after that]. He stayed for a long, long time with the same structure and the same people. Then a new manager comes and what is he going to do? How many people does he bring with him? What’s he going to change after 27 years of victory? It’s hard when a guy comes and it’s like that.”
Rafael describes Ferguson as his “football dad” and the education he received in Manchester, both on and off the pitch, has allowed him to continue playing at the top level after leaving Old Trafford. Before the coronavirus pandemic caused football to shut down, his Lyon team beat Cristiano Ronaldo‘s Juventus 1-0 in their Champions League round of 16 first-leg tie.
“Sir Alex is very honest,” Rafael added. “Everyone knows about his winning mentality but he’s a person who helps everyone. But not just help like doing kind stuff all the time, also telling them the way to do things. He did that with me and my brother many times. He didn’t speak with us a lot because we were quiet guys. We didn’t do a lot of silly stuff but when we did he would tell us.
“I remember one time, I started to like horse racing. We went to the horse racing in Liverpool. The next day he finds out we went there and he called me and my brother to his office and he said ‘look, I know you went to the horse racing, you know where you went?’ We said ‘it was in Liverpool’ and he just said ‘be careful where you go.’ We didn’t do a lot of silly stuff but he wanted to tell us to be careful what we do and where you go.”
For many United fans, Rafael’s departure just two years after playing a key role in the 2013 title triumph is evidence of the botched recruitment policy that has blighted the post-Ferguson era.
Still only 29, he is “happy” in Lyon while Fabio is also in France with Nantes. He has been capped twice by Brazil and represented his country at the 2012 Olympics alongside Neymar. But, for him, nothing has yet topped puling on a United shirt.
“I cannot even explain how that feeling was because it’s a different feeling to everything else,” he said. “You play for Manchester United, the best club in the world. For me the best club in the world. It’s just love. Love and passion.”