Just 27 minutes into his first Watford start, Richarlison received a dinked through ball almost on top of the left touchline, just a few yards away from the corner flag. Bournemouth defender Adam Smith charged up behind him like a dog chasing a rabbit, ready to greet Richarlison with one of those ‘welcome to England’ tackles foreign imports so often receive on their debuts. The Brazilian looked trapped.
Instead of panicking, though, he flicked the bouncing ball up and over Smith’s head with his first touch, before slotting it neatly through the defender’s contorted legs with his second, making a break towards the Bournemouth box. Smith, as far as I know, is still lost, wandering around in the corner of Dean Court chasing Richarlison’s long-lost shadow.
The move, one that only a player full of confidence would even attempt, brought a small cheer from the travelling away fans, a bit of Brazilian sunshine to brighten their weekend. Richarlison would have been expecting something else, though. In Brazil, flicking the ball over a defender’s head, known in Portuguese as a chapéu, or hat, and then nutmegging him immediately after would have sent the crowd into raptures. There is nothing Brazilians value more than a piece of individual brilliance, especially when it embarrasses the opposition. The more muted reaction of the Watford faithful is a sign of a wildly differing football culture, one to which Richarlison will need to adapt fast.
Not that it’s been a problem so far. In his first four games for The ‘Orns, Richarlison has already scored one and set up a slew of chances for his team-mates, providing exactly the sort of attacking impetus Watford were hoping for when they signed him for £11.5 million from Rio de Janeiro giants Fluminense in July. Not many in England were familiar with the young Brazilian at the time, but Richarlison will be looking to make a name for himself in Premier League this season.
Richarlison was born in the relatively-unknown Brazilian state of Espírito Santo, wedged on the Atlantic coast between of Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and Bahia. There, he grew up in a small, rural town, playing in Brazil’s infamously tough várzea leagues, usually on uneven dirt pitches against uncompromising opponents. It was this same sort of environment that nurtured Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus and perhaps accounts for their similar never-say-die attitudes and impish inventiveness.
Richarlison was a late bloomer, however, playing only for amateur sides until as recently as 2013. In that year, he was rejected from trials at Série B clubs Figueirense and Avaí before Real Noroeste, a tiny minnow in the Espírito Santo state championship, offered him the long-awaited opportunity to play professionally.
He stood out immediately, and in 2014, América Mineiro came calling, propelling Richarlison onto the national football scene for the first time in his career.
Initially, he played in the Rabbits’ youth set up, but soon impressed enough to be called into the first-team squad and, in 2015, was handed his chance. The step up did not prove too big for him, and, just as he did in his European debut, he made an immediate impact, scoring on his Série B debut against Mogi Mirim.
Playing off the wing or as a number 10 that season, he scored nine goals in 24 appearances, as América won promotion to the top-flight. His direct running in behind opposition defences and his ability to use both feet with equal aplomb attracted admiring glances from bigger clubs across the country, and eventually convinced Fluminense to shell out around £2.3 million for his services in January 2016.
Indeed, it is his two-footedness that is the 20-year-old’s outstanding characteristic. He dribbles incredibly well with both his right and his left, and has scored more than half of his career goals on his supposedly weaker side.
In April this year, he told Brazilian site GloboEsporte that, “I am right footed, but in training I shoot with my left. The opportunities [to shoot with my left] arose in the games and I stuck them in. I’ve done it since I was a kid. I can hit the ball with both feet.”
In Rio de Janeiro, he bagged his first goal in the big local derby against Flamengo, quickly endearing himself to the fans, and subsequently went from strength to strength despite playing in a fairly poor side for much of the season. Richarlison is at his best playing on the left of a 4-3-3 and cutting in, but was often played as a central striker in 2016, forcing him to add another dimension to his game and learn to play with his back to goal.
Nonetheless, he is still far more effective playing wide. It was in this position where he played in this January’s South American U20 Championship, where he was comfortably the best player in another dreadful side that failed to take any of the four qualification spots on offer for U20 World Cup in Korea.
As noted by Abel Braga, his Fluminense coach this year, Richarlison is the consummate modern attacker, playing anywhere across the front-line, combining decent technique with the requisite physique and willingness to work for the collective. His performances in the Premier League so far have shown his discipline on the left of midfield in Marco Silva’s well-structured 4-2- 3-1.
That’s not to say, however, that there is not room for improvement. His pace sometimes causes him to lose balance when trying to dig out a shot or find that final pass, and in some instances, he chooses to hold onto the ball when laying it off would be the more sensible option. At Watford, though, he appears perfectly placed to make quick strides. He should get plenty of game time this season, and in Marco Silva, he has a very astute and, more importantly, Portuguese-speaking coach. For someone who speaks very little English, this will be of immeasurable assistance. The player has already spoken of his admiration for his new manager, comparing him to José Mourinho in an interview with Portuguese paper O Jogo. As if that were not enough, Richarlison also has his compatriot and club captain Heurelho Gomes to lean on as he settles in to life in Hertfordshire.
As for the future, he has already spoken of his desire to play for Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League and make the step up from Brazil’s U20 team to the senior ranks.
With splendiferous talent and a hungry ambitions to match it, expect him to realise those dreams sooner rather than later.
By: Joshua Law/@JoshuaMLaw