Tuesday October 27 2020
Rafael Leao springs to life for Milan


After struggling for consistency last year as Milan’s newest bright-eyed talent, Matthew Santangelo believes Rafael Leão finally is benefitting from embracing coach Stefano Pioli's approach. 


Monday evening’s clash between unbeaten Milan and Roma at San Siro served as the main course of Serie A Week 5, a marquee matchup that put two premium veteran strikers, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Edin Džeko, front and centre.

For the Big Swede, it was business as usual, another two-goal, 'Father Time'-defying performance for the third straight league match, while the Bosnian yet again proved why he is a priceless component to the Giallorossi at 34 by scoring one himself.

Eventually, the two sides shared the spoils in what ended up a seesaw affair jam-packed with all the fixings: goals, bookings and of course officiating controversy. But, dubious penalty calls and poor refereeing aside, the spotlight in the aftermath was directed at Rafael Leão, who sparkled yet again in the thrilling 3-3 draw.

The 21-year old, who supplied Ibrahimović for the decisive goal in last weekend’s Derby della Madonnina victory against Inter, added to his tally with two more unique, and equally impressive, assists demonstrative of who he is as a player in current form.

Picking up the ball, Leão made his dash towards the final third, sending Rick Karsdorp into retreat mode before eventually lobbing over the top and in behind the defence with an inch-perfect pass to Ibrahimovic for the simple tap-in. His second, at first glance, looked strikingly similar to last weekend’s against Danilo D’Ambrosio; utilising quick feet, technical dribbling ability, long strides and lung-bursting acceleration into space near the byline to then square a ball for Alexis Saelemaekers, who scored the second goal on the night.

Over 72 minutes, the Sporting academy graduate made the most of his 30 touches, passing at an 83% completion rate, executing two key passes, creating two chances and pulling off four successful dribbles in an all-encompassing exhibition.

Nimble and with neat footwork, the attacker’s dribbling ability is holstered as the main weapon in his arsenal, wielding it in one-on-one situations and in the attacking transitional phase where many whiff in their attempts to clamp down on him. Ask D’Ambrosio and Karsdorp.

Unlike last season where Leão would showcase his off-the-chart talent in spurts, now the silky-dribbler’s attacking maneuvers are more purposeful and with substance. They tease and flirt with potential that is beginning to, at the very least, lend a morsel of credibility towards former Sporting academy coach Tiago Fernandes' bold affirmation of the forward being better than Cristiano Ronaldo at youth level.

Technically speaking, Leão has plenty to be special, and Stefano Pioli recognises that. The current coach has spoken highly of the young forward in the media, but it always seemed as though he was not satisfied with the work he has put in and demanded a bit more.

At every turn, the 55-year old will sing the praises of his players, but he also ensures they keep their heads down, feet firmly on the ground and are willing to work hard. This method of coaching can either make an individual stronger mentally or break him to the point where he is discouraged.

Even if there is still room for growth, it seems as though Leão has fully embraced and bought into Pioli’s approach rather than succumbing to it, and is becoming a better player as a result.

Sitting on two goals and three assists in four Serie A appearances already for the first-placed Rossoneri, Leão is brimming with the confidence that, when combined with his swagger and style of play, is a dangerous proposition for the rest of the Italian top-flight.

Have your say...
Given that most agree the Leao's defensive work rate leaves something to be desired perhaps it could be said that his optimal position is out wide in a 4-3-3. Unlike in a 4-2-3-1, wingers are expected to do a bit less defensively in the former. Of course that is unless the coach calls for a 4-5-1 when out of possession!
on the 30th October, 2020 at 2:07pm
I think the game against Sparta Praha vindicated my points. Leao is great on the left flank, for sure, but he adds such a different dimension to the attack when he's the striker. He must be amongst the paciest in Serie A. He can outrun defenders to a ball or use his ball control skills to create separation for a shot. We do need Rebic back to make the most of the different Rebic/Leao/Ibra combinations in attack.
on the 30th October, 2020 at 2:02pm
Leao finally showing what he can do. Must continue to play. Can Rebic play on the LW? Saelemakers is doing a solid job and what he lacks in talent makes up for with hard work. But we need an upgrade there. Hopefully Thauvin comes in January. I agree Leao should also back up Ibra as it’s not wise to play him every 3 days at his age. Would like to experiment with trying Rebic on the LW to get Leao Rebic and Ibra on pitch together. Diaz should play more - same w Dalot. Shame we only have dry loans
on the 30th October, 2020 at 2:23am
@ Vero Rossonero You make good points but I think Leão has done most of his damage down the left. That his how he set up both goals against Roma and the goal against Inter. I am not that fussed about "modern football". I'm only really interested in getting the most out of players.

Great call about Ibrahimovic! He's actually done ok defensively (except for the goal against Roma). I think overall we have many positives. I'd like to see Colombia getting more games.
on the 29th October, 2020 at 3:23am
I like Leao but he needs to be more consistent. Sometimes he is just walking around the pitch looking like a lost puppy, then on the other hand he is beating players with ease and creating goals. He needs to find a happy medium to ensure he is a starter as opposed to a rotation option.
on the 28th October, 2020 at 4:21pm
Addendum: Literally like an hour after I wrote my posts an article is posted quoting Pioli as saying he's going to start rotating more! Good man. Too bad Hauge is out with Covid as this would have been a good chance to see him start from the beginning vs. Sparta Praha.
on the 28th October, 2020 at 2:22pm
Cont'd: By the way, tying my two points together, how impressive is Ibra playing 90 min every three days at age 39? I bet if he'd played the three games he missed that he'd have at least three more goals. Incredibly, he may end up being capocannoniere this season. Truly amazing. It does make me wonder if some of this is a reflection of a lack of overall quality in Serie A at the moment. I do feel that Pioli will need to start managing his time better as the season progresses.
on the 28th October, 2020 at 1:40pm
Cont'd: That way everyone sees good playing time, instead of having a position stacked 3 players deep and no real backup for Ibra. In my opinion, Leao has been best as a center forward. ACM1899, you bring up Diaz. I was frustrated that Diaz didn't see minutes against Roma. I felt that he might have brought the energy and creativity needed to win the match in the final 15 in place of Hakan, who looked a little gassed. Cont'd...
on the 28th October, 2020 at 1:35pm
Leao's weaknesses are well documented here, so not gonna repeat. Maldini, you mention covering with Bennacer (or whoever else), but we already need to compensate for Ibra's also virtually non-existent defensive contribution. In contemporary football all 10 outfield players are contributing in the defensive phase. That's why I see Rebic as the undisputed LW, and Leao as more of a striker. He should be coming on to spell Ibra, not Rebic. Hauge should be the no. 2 option at LW. Cont'd.
on the 28th October, 2020 at 1:30pm
play. So we need to account for that. Bennacer can cover his side, but most interestingly if he pushes inside the 4231 can become a 352-ish with Hernandez bombing down that side. It contrasts nicely with our attacks down the right where Calabria and Saelemaekers double up. For whatever reason many teams with that sort of weird imbalance have done well. Arsenal in the Henry years being one example. And that's exactly who Leão reminds me of. Henry did not reach his potential until....
on the 28th October, 2020 at 9:50am
he played for Roma. That was fine when Serie A teams were dominating Europe. But Salah had to go to the Premier League to reach his potential and win the Champions League. I am most interested in the work Pioli has done with existing players. Çalhanoğlu being the most striking example. Leão is his next big challenge. Leão's strengths are obvious. Pace, unpredictability, putting defenders on the back foot, giving us that point of difference in the final third. His main weakness is his defensive
on the 28th October, 2020 at 9:42am
Every player has strengths and weaknesses. It's the job of the manager to focus on the strengths and reduce the impact of the weaknesses by surrounding a player with complimentary players. That is how you get the best out of the players you have, rather than waiting until January for the players you wish you had. It's something Serie A is particularly bad at in recent years. We consistently see players performing better in better leagues. Salah was not the greatest player on the planet when
on the 28th October, 2020 at 9:34am
Leao has been making good progress this season . Given his skills, he should be scoring 10-15 goals with equal number of assists . Leao , Diaz , Alexis , Tonali have it all to serve Milan for the next decade.
on the 28th October, 2020 at 5:59am
@ Anonymous

Leao and Rebic will have to rotate for the left wing position based on form, and also cover for Ibrahimovic. Hauge will have to wait for his chance in the easier matches/cups, maybe off the bench. Daniel Maldini could have some minutes this season, I don't see more than that for him but you'll never know with Covid! One or two attackers out like in the begging of the season and suddenly he will be pushed higher up the hierarchy.
on the 27th October, 2020 at 7:02pm
He has unbelievable talent and can create unreal pieces of play (Fiorentina goal last season) that not many in history of the game were able to pull off at 20, but, and this is a big one, he does have attitude issues.
Balotelli also had everything from talent to great physical capabilities and we all know how that turned out. While Leao is not really as frustrating as Balo, he does look uninterested and has the wrong approach and attitude towards the game frequently. I don't know if it's fixable
on the 27th October, 2020 at 6:55pm
His immense potential and talent is not in question but I agree his work rate and off the ball play has to improve. Not unusual for developing players of his age though.
Remember the words of Ancelotti: "dear Ronaldinho, talent alone is not enough"
on the 27th October, 2020 at 6:17pm
What's is Milan's best front line, once Rebic becomes available? Also, any role for Daniel Maldini this season?
on the 27th October, 2020 at 3:45pm
Sure he is displaying more skill with more consistency but I still can’t help but feel frustrated with him generally strolling around casually when off the ball, whereas the likes of Alexis and Diaz for example chase the ball consistently when off the ball. Leao is sitting on a boat load of potential for sure and I’m excited to see how much more he can contribute to our attack, but at the same time I am sincerely his work ethic improves when he doesn’t have the ball at his feet.
on the 27th October, 2020 at 3:36pm

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