That smile and the 20-goal mission: How Leao influences two of Milan’s biggest choices

By Oliver Fisher -

Seeing Rafael Leao pick up the ball in stride and round Simone Scuffet before firing into an empty net with a smile on his face was one of the many positives from the 5-1 win over Cagliari on Saturday, and keeping that smile is something that the AC Milan management will be thinking about.

There was some surprise when the starting line-up was named for that game and Leao was absent from it along with Theo Hernandez, Fikayo Tomori and the captain Davide Calabria. However, that absence seemed to do him good as he came on and was the game-breaker in the second half.

Stefano Pioli commented on the choice to bring Leao on in the second half: “It wasn’t a punishment but I had to do something. I don’t change my mind about players because of an exclusion. He and the others reacted as I hoped.”

A numbers game

And what a reaction it was. First he hit the crossbar after three minutes, then he provided the assist to Christian Pulisic and finally scored his 14th goal of the season. From Bennacer’s through ball the No.10 did what he does best: get the ball under his spell, turn on the jets and finish.

Although we cannot speak of 2023-24 being his best season since being at Milan, Leao scored goal number 14 of the season against the Sardinian side across all competitions. To date, the Portuguese is only two goals behind what he achieved last year (16).

It has been a rollercoaster season of sorts for the former Lille man, who started very well before suffering a bit of a drop-off that seemed to impact him domestically more than anything else.

The new year provided a jolt, yet then again he went missing in arguably the three most important games: the two legs against Roma and the derby against Inter that saw them win the Scudetto.

It carries on: Leao was decisive against PSG, Rennes and Slavia Prague in the Champions and Europa League, but in the league he found things more difficult and against Genoa – the game before Cagliari – he was jeered off.

On Sunday he emerged as a hero again, which is symbolic of his career swings so far, and the fact he got such a warm reception from the fans can only be a positive thing.

Big changes await

There is a period of change coming up for Milan who will have to choose a new head coach and make some summer signings that raise the level of the squad to close the gap that has opened up with Inter.

The difficulties of the last month had many questioning whether Leao – as the highest paid player in the squad – is the right man to be the leader of this Milan heading into a new phase of the project. Some even openly called for him to be sold to the highest bidder.

Unlike Theo Hernandez and Mike Maignan, whose contracts expires in 2025, Leao has already officially tied his future to Milan until 2028 so there is an added security for everyone involved and no imminent crossroads arriving.

The management are also reflecting on the future of the current best players, among which Leao obviously stands out. However, the Portuguese – who grew as a man and as a player at Milan – does not want to leave the club.

Unless huge offers are made, he will be the cornerstone of the new team that will be born after the summer and will continue to lead the club into what they hope will be a successful post-Pioli era.

Keeping the smile

With Leao’s importance and almost certain permanence outlined, it is no mystery that the choice of the next coach will also be linked to the way in which he intends to exploit the qualities of Rafael Leao.

The 4-3-3, as we have seen, enhances the qualities of the winger who instead struggles when asked to play in a more central role. Although Leao has often been ambiguous about his preferred position, we have seen enough to know he is not a centre-forward.

Looking at some of the names linked, it is easy to imagine where he might fit. Under Thiago Motta for example he would remain on the left of a 4-2-3-1, under Sergio Conceicao it would likely be the same, but he would have to adapt under someone like Marcelo Gallardo who tends to use two strikers and a diamond midfield.

It is also well known that Milan plan to invest in a new striker in the summer to replace the outgoing Olivier Giroud, and that is a big decision that will be made after evaluating all factors including and perhaps especially how they will link up with Rafa.

The hope is that with a new more mobile No.9, Theo remaining on his flank and with Christian Pulisic and Samuel Chukwueze providing threat on the other flank, the conditions will be created to make the 24-year-old a 20-goal scorer, which is the next big step.

Beyond tactics and who he is playing alongside, what will really count is putting Leao in the best mental state to succeed, because some players need a bit of added motivation and stimulation. The get Rafael Leao at his best, you need to always make him smile.

Tags AC Milan Rafael Leao


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  1. Why and how does an Inter fan have so much vested interest in our team – the rival team mind you, our players, who we should sign, what’s best for the team etc etc.? I barely give a rats behind about Lautauro or even Hakan for instance 🤷‍♂️

    1. I also make similar comments on forums of MC, Arsenal and Chelsea. I keep an eye on RM, BM, Barcelona and other big teams. I like discussing football, even when they are direct rivals. Though this year we had no rival in the Serie A 🙂

      1. Leao and many others suffer from the Messi/Ronaldo factor.

        Messi and Ronaldo were phenomenal. They were goal machines.

        A combination of their unbelievable talent and a significant drop in the quality of defences saw them score goals like they were in computer games.

        The quality of the defences dropped because a) tactics became more open; b) rule changes made defending harder; c) physically players became stronger and faster and harder to handle (even little Messi!); d) high player turnover across the top 5 leagues prevented teams from building stable defensive lines.

        Any player today is measured against Messi and Ronaldo. And some have come close: Haaland and Mpappe being the two closest.

        But this is not normal.

        It’s not normal for players to casually score 30+ goals a season (even my Metaphorical 40 Goal A Season Striker).

        It’s not normal for players to play the games of their lives every single match.

        It’s not normal for players to be like machines.

        But that’s not to say that Leao is normal.

        At any moment he can win us a game.

        But we don’t expect that every game.

        14 goals and 14 assists in 45 games is more than a normal return for a winger. It’s actually exceptional.

        For me he’s unsellable.

        He is a key difference maker, he is now part of the identity of the club, and we have other priorities. Especially my Metaphorical 40 Goal A Season Striker.

      2. I mean your club is in debt and yet didn’t receive any punishment but it’s fine soon you will have to sell some of your valuable players and will be fighting for a conference league spot. Getting a new loan only increased the amount to be paid in the future and most of the players in the squad are getting too old to keep playing. So enjoy this moment as much as you can because your downfall will be hard

        1. Keep dreaming. The finances are improving. There will not be a downfall, at least not the kind you imagine. Though I would like Inter to have an owner who does not need to get new debt every now and then just to keep the ownership of the club. lol

      3. Just like last season ,napoli dont have rival in serie A . Next season after they scudetto , they fallen to 11th. There is cycle in football

      1. I wasn’t expecting my comment to blow up. But I feel sad in many ways for him. Maybe the Inter page is not as active or he needs friends and validation. I dont think he understands the level of the rivalry so I wish he can experience it by donning a blue and black kit and visiting the Curva sud for a game as a once in a lifetime experience 😁. I don’t thin even the current Milan fans here understand the rivalry we have with them. It irritates me to see the name Inter show up in these comments much less having to reply to this smug pr!CK tell us how we should run our team. Worse yet our own commenters are happy go lucky because he is “well behaved” which is exactly what he wants ppl to think so he can have an interaction..I see through all this nonsense. An Inter fan will never ever be a friend of mine. For others they’re free to do what they want.

        1. No worries, I am not dying to be your “friend” or get “validation” from you. If you do not like my comments, then don’t respond to them. I guess you are competent enought to understand that.

          1. You’re so sad and egomaniacal, you actually think Im speaking to you instead of rhetorically lol 😂.
            I didn’t reply to your original comment. Go check. My comment is directed to AC Milan fans/commenters here, I don’t care for u or any other interista in these comments sections. Wtf 😂😂😂
            I already said I have nothing to do with Inter scum.

  2. Sarri or vicenzo italiano can make leao shine. Thiago motta with 4231 can do it too . But the new coach that using 2 striker will make leao flop example conte,gallardo,etc. We already see leao flop under giampaolo or even pioli ( after pioli try 352)

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