Rafael Leao: from tough diamond to crown jewel

Though the 23-year-old winger is blessed with wealthy items, his supporters as soon as puzzled whether or not he would fulfill his potential. However he has adopted up a breakthrough season with AC Milan — the membership received the Scudetto, he took residence the MVP title — with a barnstorming begin to 2022-23

Though the 23-year-old winger is blessed with wealthy items, his supporters as soon as puzzled whether or not he would fulfill his potential. However he has adopted up a breakthrough season with AC Milan — the membership received the Scudetto, he took residence the MVP title — with a barnstorming begin to 2022-23

Rafael Leao seems each inch the predator he’s on the soccer area: tall, muscular, harmful. The Portuguese star can be one of many rarest profiles within the recreation, a ‘big-body’ winger who can ship the ultimate ball, break defensive traces along with his dribbling, act as a ball-carrying outlet on the counter and end like a centre. -forward who additionally possesses an aerial risk.

Simply think about the varied methods during which the AC Milan wide-man can harm the opposition.

Leao can burst into a robust run from a standing begin, cease on a dime and take off once more, reaching top-line pace in nearly no time. He leaves his markers for lifeless simply along with his explosive modifications of tempo. He additionally has a bag of methods — step-overs, shoulder-drops, sharp cuts with the within and out of doors of his foot, drags with the only, physique feints and path modifications.

Defenders have few choices to include the 23-year-old. Staying touch-tight and getting bodily does not work — he is 6’2”, larger and stronger than any full-back he’s prone to encounter on the wing. Leao can maintain his man off, roll by contact, flip and breeze previous. Standing off and making an attempt to regulate his place is simply as fraught with hazard; Leao is adept at squaring his marker up and as soon as he has his man on his heels, his methods are much more devastating. He can go on the skin or reduce in; he’s very efficient doing each.

At his finest, Leao can discover a cross, off both foot, from out on the touch-line or the half-space. Equally, he can break diagonally into the field and end. Within the Milan derby earlier this month, a number of of his talents have been on show as he performed an element in all three objectives the Rossoneri scored in a 3-2 win over bitter metropolis rival Inter.

His first purpose was a one-touch, left-footed end throughout the goalkeeper, into the side-netting. He then discovered Olivier Giroud within the field with a left-footed cross from the touchline, nearly a long-distance cut-back. To have such affect along with his ‘weaker’ foot was an indication of simply how particular he’s. The match-winner noticed Leao go away two defenders in his wake as he drove into the field on the again of some trickery earlier than scoring, this time along with his stronger proper foot.

Shedding a tag

The show confirmed simply how precious Leao is to Milan — and the way convincingly he has overcome his early fame as a irritating expertise who wasn’t residing as much as his potential.

Former Sporting Lisbon youth workforce coach Tiago Fernandes made the declare that Leao was “the very best participant within the historical past of the academy” — higher than the likes of Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo on the identical age. When he moved to Lille, quitting Sporting after gamers and workers have been reportedly attacked by a gaggle of followers, he was nicknamed ‘The Portuguese Mbappe’. Then coach Christophe Galtier additionally stated, nonetheless, that “he is a participant who could make you pull your hair out however, a couple of minutes later, deliver you a whole lot of hope and a smile”.

Leao’s early years in Milan have been of an identical nature — the expertise was apparent. In December 2020, the teenager scored the quickest purpose in Serie A historical past, netting after simply 6.2 seconds at Sassuolo. There have been different flashes of brilliance, but additionally the inconsistency that younger gamers typically must take care of. Maybe it did not assist that coach Stefano Pioli in contrast his type to Thierry Henry’s. Additionally, Leao’s swagger might have rubbed some followers the mistaken manner.

These days at the moment are firmly prior to now, with the Milan followers in love with their crown jewel. After a breakthrough season, throughout which he received the 2021-22 Serie A MVP title and Milan claimed the Scudetto, Leao has begun this season even higher: three objectives and three assists in six Serie A appearances and two Champions League assists in two video games.

“Naturally, each time we put him in one-on-one conditions, he is an necessary weapon in our armoury,” Pioli stated. “Rafa has a physique language that may confuse folks, however I can guarantee you he is aware of what potential he has and could be very desirous to be taught. With the intention to enhance, you want expertise and intelligence, so Leao has each of these. We gave him the time and freedom to make errors so he might be taught.”

Leao’s numbers over the past yr place him among the many finest in Europe. In accordance with statistical outlet fbref.com, the 23-year-old is within the high 15% for non-penalty objectives per 90 minutes (0.37), the highest 4% for assists per 90 (0.42), the highest 4% for dribbles accomplished per 90 (2.96) and the highest 10% for progressive carries per 90 (8.79), in comparison with different attackers in Europe’s 5 main leagues. So when it comes to purpose risk and advancing the ball, he’s elite. He’s additionally versatile: though primarily deployed off the left, he can play throughout the entrance line.

So it is no shock that different European giants are circling, seeking to see if Leao extends his Milan contract, scheduled to expire in 2024. Chelsea already made a casual provide in the summertime, Milan’s technical director Paolo Maldini not too long ago confirmed. It was rejected however he added that “it is pointless being a romantic”, with the likes of Manchester Metropolis, searching for Raheem Sterling’s substitute on the left wing, and even Actual Madrid supposedly .

What the longer term holds

There is no such thing as a doubt that Milan will miss Leao if a transfer have been to materialise. Already this season, the membership suffered in opposition to Napoli, tasting defeat for the primary time in 2022-23 after the left-winger was suspended for receiving a pink card within the earlier fixture. With out entry to his lightning tempo, line-breaking capability and eye for purpose, Milan regarded a significantly much less threatening facet.

Former Milan gamers, together with former striker Jean-Pierre Papin, have urged Leao to remain in Italy and develop. In accordance with Gazzetta dello Sport, that appears to be the path of the Portuguese star’s considering as effectively. It reported that Leao needs to achieve an settlement on an extension with Milan earlier than the World Cup begins in November to keep away from potential distractions. The Serie A champion is reportedly providing him a wage improve, price about €6 million per season, however Leao needs a quantity nearer to €7m.

However wherever Leao’s future lies, what’s sure is that he has discovered learn how to translate his potential into match- and championship-winning performances. And he did it in Milan, which might affect the choice on the place he needs to play his subsequent few years.

“God has given me the expertise, which is uncommon, however I need to add sacrifices and onerous work,” Leao stated in an interview with La Repubblica. “I’ve a expertise to domesticate however you do not play alone in soccer and I’ve proved that I could make it at Milan.”

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