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

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.