Rafael Leao: from rough diamond to crown jewel

Although the 23-year-old winger is blessed with rich gifts, his supporters once wondered whether he would fulfil his potential. But he has followed up a breakthrough season with AC Milan — the club won the Scudetto, he took home the MVP title — with a barnstorming start to 2022-23

Although the 23-year-old winger is blessed with rich gifts, his supporters once wondered whether he would fulfil his potential. But he has followed up a breakthrough season with AC Milan — the club won the Scudetto, he took home the MVP title — with a barnstorming start to 2022-23

Rafael Leao looks every inch the predator he is on the football field: tall, muscular, dangerous. The Portuguese star is also one of the rarest profiles in the game, a ‘big-body’ winger who can deliver the final ball, break defensive lines with his dribbling, act as a ball-carrying outlet on the counter and finish like a centre-forward who also possesses an aerial threat. 

Just consider the various ways in which the AC Milan wide-man can hurt the opposition.

Leao can burst into a powerful run from a standing start, stop on a dime and take off again, reaching top-line speed in almost no time. He leaves his markers for dead just with his explosive changes of pace. He also has a bag of tricks — step-overs, shoulder-drops, sharp cuts with the inside and outside of his foot, drags with the sole, body feints and direction changes.

Defenders have few options to contain the 23-year-old. Staying touch-tight and getting physical doesn’t work — he’s 6’2”, bigger and stronger than any full-back he is likely to encounter on the wing. Leao can hold his man off, roll through contact, turn and breeze past. Standing off and trying to control his position is just as fraught with danger; Leao is adept at squaring his marker up and once he has his man on his heels, his tricks are even more devastating. He can go on the outside or cut in; he is very effective doing both.

At his best, Leao can find a pass, off either foot, from out on the touch-line or the half-space. Equally, he can break diagonally into the box and finish. In the Milan derby earlier this month, several of his abilities were on display as he played a part in all three goals the Rossoneri scored in a 3-2 win over bitter city rival Inter. 

His first goal was a one-touch, left-footed finish across the goalkeeper, into the side-netting. He then found Olivier Giroud in the box with a left-footed pass from the touchline, almost a long-distance cut-back. To have such influence with his ‘weaker’ foot was a sign of just how special he is. The match-winner saw Leao leave two defenders in his wake as he drove into the box on the back of some trickery before scoring, this time with his stronger right foot.

Shedding a tag

The display showed just how valuable Leao is to Milan — and how convincingly he has overcome his early reputation as a frustrating talent who wasn’t living up to his potential.

Former Sporting Lisbon youth team coach Tiago Fernandes made the claim that Leao was “the best player in the history of the academy” — better than the likes of Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo at the same age. When he moved to Lille, quitting Sporting after players and staff were reportedly attacked by a group of fans, he was nicknamed ‘The Portuguese Mbappe’. Then coach Christophe Galtier also said, however, that “he’s a player who can make you pull your hair out but, a few minutes later, bring you a lot of hope and a smile”.

Leao’s early years in Milan were of a similar nature — the talent was obvious. In December 2020, the youngster scored the fastest goal in Serie A history, netting after just 6.2 seconds at Sassuolo. There were other flashes of brilliance, but also the inconsistency that young players often have to deal with. Perhaps it didn’t help that coach Stefano Pioli compared his style to Thierry Henry’s. Also, Leao’s swagger may have rubbed some fans the wrong way.

Those days are now firmly in the past, with the Milan fans in love with their crown jewel. After a breakthrough season, during which he won the 2021-22 Serie A MVP title and Milan claimed the Scudetto, Leao has begun this season even better: three goals and three assists in six Serie A appearances and two Champions League assists in two games.

“Naturally, every time we put him in one-on-one situations, he’s an important weapon in our armoury,” Pioli said. “Rafa has a body language that might confuse people, but I can assure you he knows what potential he has and is very eager to learn. In order to improve, you need talent and intelligence, so Leao has both of those. We gave him the time and freedom to make mistakes so he could learn.”

Leao’s numbers over the last year place him among the best in Europe. According to statistical outlet fbref.com, the 23-year-old is in the top 15% for non-penalty goals per 90 minutes (0.37), the top 4% for assists per 90 (0.42), the top 4% for dribbles completed per 90 (2.96) and the top 10% for progressive carries per 90 (8.79), compared to other attackers in Europe’s five major leagues. So in terms of goal threat and advancing the ball, he is elite. He is also versatile: although primarily deployed off the left, he can play across the front line.

So it’s no surprise that other European giants are circling, looking to see if Leao extends his Milan contract, scheduled to run out in 2024. Chelsea already made an informal offer in the summer, Milan’s technical director Paolo Maldini recently confirmed. It was rejected but he added that “it’s pointless being a romantic”, with the likes of Manchester City, looking for Raheem Sterling’s replacement on the left wing, and even Real Madrid supposedly interested. 

What the future holds

There is no doubt that Milan will miss Leao if a move were to materialise. Already this season, the club suffered against Napoli, tasting defeat for the first time in 2022-23 after the left-winger was suspended for receiving a red card in the previous fixture. Without access to his lightning pace, line-breaking ability and eye for goal, Milan looked a considerably less threatening side.

Former Milan players, including former striker Jean-Pierre Papin, have urged Leao to stay in Italy and develop. According to Gazzetta dello Sport, that seems to be the direction of the Portuguese star’s thinking as well. It reported that Leao wants to reach an agreement on an extension with Milan before the World Cup starts in November to avoid potential distractions. The Serie A champion is reportedly offering him a salary increase, worth about €6 million per season, but Leao wants a number closer to €7m. 

But wherever Leao’s future lies, what’s certain is that he has figured out how to translate his potential into match- and championship-winning performances. And he did it in Milan, which could influence the decision on where he wants to play his next few years. 

“God has given me the talent, which is rare, but I must add sacrifices and hard work,” Leao said in an interview with La Repubblica. “I have a talent to cultivate but you don’t play alone in football and I’ve proved that I can make it at Milan.”

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