In the summer of 2019, Milan shelled out €23m for the signing of Rafael Leao from Lille after selling Patrick Cutrone to Wolves for €22m.
A player who had a good start to his senior career with Lille, Milan saw a lot of potential in Leao and saw his transfer in line with the club’s vision of signing talented young players to take the club forward.
Leao made quite the splash in a sub appearance against Feronikeli in a pre-season friendly. His explosive pace combined with his slick dribbling skills dazzled fans, and Marco Giampaolo gave him his first start against Inter in the derby. Although he did give trouble to veteran Diego Godin, the Uruguayan’s experience kept him quiet, but it was his goal against Fiorentina where fans really realised what Leao is capable of.
Since then Leao has been blowing hot and cold. Even though Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived and Leao publicly professing his admiration for his ‘big brother’ and his desire to work under the Swede, the revival of Rebic relegated the 21-year-old to the bench with Pioli opting for quick results instead of patient team building approach.
In this article, Rohit Rajeev aims to make a case for his stay beyond the summer with an analysis of his strengths and weaknesses…
Height: 6ft 2 inches (1.88 metres)
Style of play
Attacking the spaces
Rafael Leao has good sense as a striker. A very important aspect for any forward of his style is the attack the space left by momentary disorganisation of the opposite team and this is a very important aspect for any playing in Serie A.
In this counter attacking sequence you can see how Rugani – who fouled Rebic – left his position to attack dispossess Rebic and leaves space on Juve’s right side. The ball is loose and Leao collects the ball from point 1, attacks the space and scores a goal to complete an incredible turnaround.
Leao always looks to position himself closer to the last man’s shoulder. This enables him to use his pace and get past the defender, something effective especially during counter-attacks.
In this picture you can see how he is close to the shoulder of the last man as Calabria plays a vertical pass. Leao collects it and turns with a bit of skill to put it into the path of the onrushing Calabria for the goal against Bologna.
Leao also has good ball-playing abilities along with his skill and often drops deeper to participate in build-up play often becoming the third option for the player in possession to pass to.
In the example below he drops deeper (from Point 1 to Point 2) allowing Theo Hernandez to make an overlapping run, drawing the defender out of position and giving space for Theo to make the run. He uses Theo as a decoy to put in a diagonal ball for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who missed with his shot by inches.
In the same sequence you can see how Samu Castillejo and Leao – who recived the ball from Ibra – link up to try cut open Cagilari’s resolute defence.
Making intelligent runs
Leao makes intelligent quick darts to catch defenders unaware, something which brings about unpredictability in Milan’s attacking play. You can see below how Leao caught Cagliari’s defence out when Castillejo was taking a set piece. He spotted the Portuguese making the run and put a vertical pass through, with Leao scoring.
Areas to improve
A prime reason that Milan’s attack improved after the turn of the year was due to Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his hold-up play. With his huge frame and physique, the Swede has the technique as well to hold the ball until one of Milan’s other attackers have made runs. If Leao can improve on that aspect which can make him more and more of a complete striker.
Leão has good height for a striker. At 6ft2 inches and 21 years of age, he should be a bit more dominant in the air. He has recently showed improvement but is yet to be an imminent threat from set pieces.
As a unit, Leao should show a bit of a better work ethic at times to help his team-mates out in defence to press effectively and start quick counters.
Leao is only 21 years old. He is hungry for success and has shown some impatience by attempting to do too much when he does get an opportunity.
He needs to emulate the work ethic of his idol Ibrahimovic and be patient, because if he keeps going at this rate and works hard he will definitely get his shot at leading the line for years to come.