When Stefano Pioli uttered the words ‘he reminds me so much of Henry’ following the team’s 3-1 win over AS Roma in the opening game of the calendar year, he may not have realised the scale of impact he was inadvertently putting into motion.
Scoffed at for being excruciatingly inconsistent, Rafael Leao appears to have taken it upon himself to fulfil the spoken prophecy. Since that day, the Portuguese winger has scored five goals and made three assists in fifteen Serie A games, helping Milan to participate in a nail-biting title race.
The young forward embarked on his Italian adventure in 2019. Arriving for a fee in the range of €30-35m, Leao was stepping into a cauldron of unrelenting expectation. Fan-favourite Patrick Cutrone had barely departed to Wolverhampton Wanderers, a weepy farewell documented on a handphone as he strutted away from his beloved club. Clouds of dismay and anguish enveloped the city and fans across the world. But, another youthful attacker was entering the arena with caution.
Little did Leao know at the time that he had unwittingly walked into a mess at his new club. The management had appointed Marco Giampaolo as head coach, an up-and-coming tactician who would supposedly remind Milan and the tifosi of Arrigo Sacchi.
Alas, the memory was triggered for reasons unintended. Giampaolo packed his bags after seven hideous games and in his stead arrived the much-maligned Stefano Pioli. Such was the toxicity at the time that #PioliOut was trending on Twitter even before the bald Italian was presented to the media.
Navigating the choppy waters during that turbulent period, Leao suffered a miserable season, scoring six goals in 33 games, clocking under 1500 minutes across Serie A and the Coppa Italia.
Last season didn’t witness too much of an improvement either, as Leao managed to find the back of the net only seven times in 40 games. The pressure was mounting and the fans were growing weary. Here was a 21-year-old, sauntering on the pitch like an entitled kid projecting the body language of a bored straggler. Calls for his transfer began to ring loud.
The fanbase was conflicted and polarised because despite Leao’s thwarting irregularities, his mercurial talent was visible for all to see. He had reminded everyone of the terrifying potential beneath the laces of his boots when he whizzed past half the Sassuolo team on 20 December 2020, scoring the fastest goal in Serie A history. Several such moments of magic split opinion while derision continued unhinged.
The season of ascent
Milan had bet big on Leao and the time to repay that faith was quickly slipping away. It was now or never, do or die, and all the theatrics that accompany the drama. This was the season for Leao to step up and deliver. Scratch that. This season, Leao has stepped up and delivered.
With three games to go, Leao has clocked over twenty per cent game time in Serie A compared to last season. He has registered double digits in goals for the first time in his senior career, nearly 2x his overall goal tally from last season. He averages a goal contribution every other game for Milan across all competitions.
The numbers demonstrate a striking improvement in productivity. The intent is even more frightening. When mapped against wingers and attacking midfielders in Europe’s top-five leagues, Leao finds himself in the 95 percentile for dribbles completed (3.24 per 90), 89 percentile for progressive carries (8.59 per 90) and in the 87 percentile for shots taken (2.92 per 90).
This intent packed with mad speed and beguiling trickery on his part has transformed Milan into a title contender. Leao’s burden in attack is multiplied manifold due to the team being crippled by one of the weakest right wings in the league coupled with the facepalm-inducing uselessness of its creative attacking midfielder.
The Portuguese winger has soldiered through it all, being one of the most deployed players in the squad and yet pulling through in crucial moments, recently represented in the games against Genoa, Lazio and Fiorentina.
The sky is the limit
Leao may not be the best player in Serie A, but he is unquestionably one of the most decisive players in the league. That said, there is plenty of room for improvement in his journey to becoming world-class.
Leao ranks 23 in the league for goals and assists per ninety minutes, 30 for xG per ninety minutes and 60 for xA per ninety. These numbers are visibly unimpressive, especially when associated with the best attacker in the team currently leading the league table. Leao has scored crucial goals, but he has not found the back of the net and neither assisted when playing against Inter Milan, Napoli or Juventus this season.
Within the lanky frame and the languid gait lies a phenomenal footballer waiting to burst through and establish himself. Milan would want that metamorphosis to happen with him wearing the famed red and black. Fortunately for the club and its fans, current signs indicate that Leao is on course to become a footballing sensation at Milan. The next Thierry Henry? Maybe. Or, maybe, Rafael Leao.