Despite a difficult period, Milan’s ambitions pass through him.
Dealing with, and specifically judging, a player like Rafael Leao is not easy yet many seem to succeed without particular difficulties. In the second leg of the Champions League round of 16, in London against Tottenham, Leao gave a performance that we could define as unusual. He was not very incisive in front of goal – zero shots on target – but he moved a lot in the middle of the pitch and created several chances for his teammates – 3 key passes. Already in the past Stefano Pioli, who since the beginning of February has lined up Leao in the middle left space of the new 3-4-2-1 Rossoneri, spoke of him as «the only AC Milan player he has large area of freedom». In a historically defensive context such as that of Italian football, however, freedom on the pitch is often not well seen and precisely during Tottenham-Milan Sandro Piccinini underlined in the commentary with a tone halfway between reproach and critical harshness that from Leao “We expect more.” Even on a good day, when he’s the only AC Milan player capable of shouldering offensive responsibilities, Leao’s game doesn’t satisfy us.
A few weeks earlier, in the league match against Atalanta, Leao had provided another great performance in the finishing phase, as evidenced by the pocket from enganche served to Messias for the 2-0 goal. Yet the next day The Sports Gazette he had chosen Leao as worst in the field for too many “wasted opportunities”.
Rafael Leao was one of the protagonists of the ride that led Milan to win the Scudetto last season. This earned him the award as best player of the season but above all the 14th place in the final ranking of the Ballon d’Or – the first Portuguese to surpass Cristiano Ronaldo since 2006. The 11 goals and 10 assists scored have rightly consecrated him as the most incisive footballer in Serie A and yet this year despite a March is already close to those numbers, with 8 goals and 7 assists scored, his performances are subject to criticism.
After playing just one season for Lille in France, Leao joined Milan in 2019 for a fee close to thirty million euros. In these four years we have had the opportunity to get to know its strengths and weaknesses and, analyzing the numbers of the current championship, it is easy to see how Leao is an essential player for Milan. Reality is often foreign to collective perceptions and if for many Leao remains indolent, one of those players who tend to look at themselves and are not useful to the team, it is from him that Milan’s best chances often arise. According to the data of choose he is second only to Brahim Diaz for the number of key passes every 90 minutes (1.91) and among the best even in the definition phase: he is second for shots attempted (3.51) and first for goals scored (0.43).
Leao is a player able to capture the attention of the viewer thanks to him to ball handling and one-on-one skills, fundamentals in which he excels also for the use he makes of his athletic power in association with a unique technical sensitivity. It is no coincidence that Leao is first in the league – among players with at least 900 minutes played – for the number of shots and key passes made following a ball and chain progression (48) and for successful dribbling (42).
While occupying a secluded field position on paper, Leao manages to be dangerous even in the penalty area: with his deep cuts starting from the left he is among the best in the league in his role for touches in the opposing area: 5.84. In short, in the season in which he is most criticized by the media and fans, Leao remains AC Milan’s most influential player, the one that shifts the balance the most. In the games in which they didn’t take the field from the first minute, Milan managed to get only 4 points out of 24 available, winning once out of 6. With Leao as starter, however, the Rossoneri won 13 games out of 20. Quality of the opponents he conditions of the match can influence the reliability of this data, but it is nonetheless a testament to Leao’s importance in the squad.
AC Milan’s game system itself seems to be adapted to the characteristics of the Portuguese full-back: most of the possessions take place on the right side of the field in such a way as to give Leao the possibility of isolating himself on the weak side and aiming for goal by exploiting all his speed, unmanageable for any full-back. It is therefore no coincidence that Leao is the AC Milan player who has received the most consecutive passes: 155.
Perhaps the highest moment, up to now, of Leao’s season takes place at the beginning of September, in a game that is not exactly trivial: the Derby. Milan and Inter are separated by just one point in the standings; the championship has only started for four days and the world championship is still far away, but the derby never loses its charm. Leao will be the absolute protagonist by scoring two goals and providing an assist. The second goal, that of the momentary 3-1, can apply without too much effort as a manifesto of his game. Tonali handles the ball in the left side of his own half and, free from opponents, serves Giroud deep, who in the meantime had attacked the penalty area followed by Leao. The Frenchman shows that he has an uncommon sensitivity with the ball and serves Leao with a first intention heel, catching Bastoni and Skriniar against time who had gone to double him. At this point Leao stalled in control to get Giroud to free him up to enter the box. With a change of direction, as predictable as it is rapid, Leao slips into the area leaving three defenders behind him and finds the net with a low right footer at the far post. Paradoxically, the exceptional nature of the goal does not lie in a gesture by Leao, but in the lack of intervention by the defenders. Both Bastoni and Skriniar are in fact taken in against time, and fail to stop the Portuguese race. Skriniar, who in the meantime has arrived behind him, is unable to keep up with him and so Leao can have the space to finish on the net almost undisturbed. It is a moment of physical and technical omnipotence in which Leao simply seems uncatchable.
If this is Leao, why is he so criticized? As mentioned at the beginning, he is often accused of appearing presumptuous at times and not always playing his best. It must be said that Leao puts some of him into it to make him believe: he is a player who makes a lot of mistakes during matches. Like against Tottenham, when in the first half he receives a ball on the edge of the area from Brahim and decides to kick first, but already on impact with the ball it becomes clear that his shot is weak as well as imprecise. Or against Atalanta, where after having received in the left side of the area he tries a lap shot, but the ball goes straight to the third ring of the San Siro.
The evaluation error that is committed by those who criticize Leao’s performance lies in the failure to evaluate the context. In the match against Inter, in addition to being the man of the match, he was also the player who touched the least number of balls (34) and completed only one dribble out of 4. In order to exploit his strengths in one on one, Leao tends to isolate himself during the match and his participation in the game, although the situation seems to be changing recently, is minimal. This forces him to always perform played from the high degree of difficulty and then ad take risks to help Milan in the possession phase. If Giroud is the man AC Milan counts on in the decisive moments, it is only between Rafael Leao’s feet that the Rossoneri maneuver can speed up and become dangerous.
However, Leao is not Messi and neither is Neymar, he doesn’t always manage to do what he would like and if we add his taste for fun on the pitch, when the public makes a mistake, they give him the impression of a player listless, superficial, presumptuous. Who passes by by chance. In the first half of the match against Atalanta there is an action in which Leao drives the ball and heads towards the inside of the pitch but is doubled and is forced to turn towards his own half of the pitch. At that moment Hojlund comes towards him, having sensed the possibility of recovering the ball, and therefore finds himself closed on two fronts. A moment before losing possession, he sees Kalulu free on his left and serves him with a back-heel pass that may seem artificial, but which is actually useful for taking Hojlund by surprise and thus eluding his pressure. If the passage had not arrived at its destination, Leao would have been accused of affectedness and Atalanta could have started a potentially dangerous counter-attack. Leao is that type of player who is able to amaze with a play but who is immediately pointed at when he makes a mistake.
The beauty of Leao is also in these persuasive touches.
Even in Milan’s last defeat in Udine, Leao was the only foothold for the Rossoneri’s attack – on that occasion Giroud was also orphaned – and even without offering an exceptional performance he earned the penalty for a momentary equalizer.
The latest market events tell of a continuous push and pull between the Milan management and Leao’s agents, whose contract expires in 2024. It seems that there is a contract at stake that would make him the highest paid player in the squad. If Milan is even willing to consider such an offer, it means that it is aware of the importance of Leao and his potential unexplored. Even if Leao were to attract a large offer from a richer team and leave Milan, it would still be proof of his exceptional nature, which even surpasses the criticisms leveled at him every week for a back-heel for its own sake or for a lap shot finished very high.