Rafael Leao has not scored a goal in Serie A for 80 days and the general feeling is that he is struggling with a lack of confidence, so AC Milan have a plan to get him back on track.
As La Gazzetta dello Sport (seen below) write this morning, the fact that one of the best forwards in the league hasn’t netted in nearly three months causes a problem for Milan, because of how crucial he is to them.
In that period he scored in the Champions League and in the Coppa Italia, gave assists in the league, put defences in difficulty and found opponents’ bodies in his way. In Empoli he almost scored with a scissor kick and would certainly have taken the goal if a defender hadn’t found himself in his path.
All true, but the statistic remains and Leao’s great desire to erase it is obvious. As in the famous book ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ he has a key assistant: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who could hold the key to unlocking him again.
Leao has scored only three goals since August, and the November injury forced him into a difficult period. He was out from November 11th to December 13th and as soon as he returned he didn’t have the same explosiveness.
On the pitch at times he seems lost, then he lights up, but he is almost never decisive inside the penalty area. If you add that opponents often double team him upon his first touch, you understand that he is experiencing one of the most complex situations of the last three years.
However, his Swedish ‘big brother’ returned to Milanello a few weeks ago. Ibra doesn’t go to training every day – in the last two days for example he hasn’t been there – but he is a presence that can be felt.
Leao considered Ibrahimovic an older brother, almost another father. It’s a question of chemistry, and of two very different people who recognise each other as champions.
Leao and Ibra had a difficult childhood but they developed an opposite approach to the world: for Zlatan everything is a challenge, while Rafa’s symbol is the smile.
Ibrahimovic also spoke to him in recent days, picking up old habits from team-mates. When there was talk of his return as an advisor, Leao on social media defined the 41-year-old as the GOAT.
In 2022 he said: “When you’re on the pitch with him, you always have to give your best. I have to listen to him, he tells me ‘Rafa look, when you enter the pitch you are a monster, take the ball and go’.”
Zlatan has always said that he struggled to motivate the former Lille man, more than with all his other team-mates: “Leao convinced himself to run. He didn’t run, I tried but I couldn’t find mental contact with him, I couldn’t.”
Those words from Ibra, however, must have remained in his head and the new motivating words will help the winger become stronger. For example, Leao is already trying to grow on his own by putting in extra work.
Those who frequent Milanello say that for some time Leao has arrived at the training complex first and tries to work more. In these weeks without cup competitions, there is a rare opportunity to work on defects and do some extra exercises, perhaps driven by the desire to get out of the dark period.
Leao does not have the obsessive mentality, the unbridled competitiveness of the great champions. It’s logical to ask what he would be if he exploited 100% – or let’s say 80% – of his potential.
However, he grew up with an example in Cristiano Ronaldo, who was an idol for him on TV and then a team-mate in the national team. CR7 has made history with body care, especially after training and matches (such as cryotherapy), an aspect on which Rafa has also recently been working.
Pioli is giving him confidence too, and in the win over Cagliari in the Coppa Italia he brought Leao on the for final few minutes. It was a psychology-driven move, to give him the opportunity to score against a tired defence, which he did.
The Ibrahimovic factor, the extra training, Pioli and his team-mates. The rebirth project has been undertaken with the people closest to him.