There are few better paths for a young footballer to take than going from Sporting’s Cristiano Ronaldo-shaping academy of worldwide repute, to Lille’s buy-them-young, sell-them-high model. In the claustrophobic world of European football, where everyone is breathlessly searching for the next big thing, not many can claim to get it right as often as these two do.
With such a clear and perfectly curated career development plan up until that point, it was no surprise to see Rafael Leão bid Les Dogues au revoir following an impressive season in 2018/19. The surprise came in his choice of destination. With the crippling expectations that come with playing for the club, and the somewhat chaotic nature of the last decade, AC Milan hardly seemed like the perfect place for a burgeoning talent to hone his skills, and for a while it felt as though Leão might have made the wrong choice.
However, he was not alone in thinking that Milanello represented the best place for him to take his game to the next level. That summer the Rossoneri also welcomed Ismaёl Bennacer and Théo Hernandez to the club, while Franck Kessié’s loan switch from Atalanta was finally made permanent.
With so many young players being integrated into the squad, it was always going to take patience for Milan fans to reap the rewards that such an approach can lead to.
While they are now used to the idea of Hernandez being the best left back in the league, and Kessie dominating games from the middle of the pitch, Leão’s rise has been something of a slower burner.
Six league goals wasn’t a bad return for a young player acclimatising to a new country, but as Milan slogged their way through the first half of the season, Leao struggled to shoulder the weight of a lack of cutting edge up front. With Krzysztof Piątek starting to flounder too, and Marco Giampaolo paying for the poor form with his job, it took the re-signing of a certain Zlatan Ibrahimović to take the heat off the misfiring duo. While Piątek was eventually deemed surplus to requirements and sold to Hertha Berlin, Leão was allowed to quietly go about improving his form.
He has certainly done that. Only Ibrahimović and Kessié (whose six goals include five penalties) have more goals for the Rossoneri than Leao’s five in Serie A this season. Only the irrepressible Hakan Çalhanoğlu has more than his four assists. His nine goal involvements is bettered only by Ibrahimović, who has 11, and in a league-wide context that puts him 14th, ahead of the likes of Edin Džeko, Lorenzo Insigne and Josip Iličić.
These are hugely encouraging signs for a player who does not turn 22 until June, and the expectation is that there is even more to come. He is already just one goal shy of equalling his tally for the whole of last season, and in Ibrahimović’s absence, he has shown an ability to lead the line for Milan.
While his best performances have previously come from the left wing, where he has showcased his propensity for taking on defenders with brilliantly direct wing play, registering superb assists in big games against Roma and Inter, he is now showing a predatory instinct in front of goal too.
Aside from his sensationally impudent chipped finish against Benevento, all of his goals this season have come from inside the penalty area, including two from inside the six-yard box. For a player who successfully completes 1.6 dribbles per match, and is comfortable on either side, to add penalty box instincts to his game is to compliment an attacking repertoire that already looks dangerously close to being complete.
His goal against Torino on Saturday was a good example of this newfound ruthlessness. Timing his run to perfection to latch onto Brahim Díaz’s through ball, his first touch took the ball away from the defender, his second swept a crisp finish past a helpless Salvatore Sirigu from close to the penalty spot.
The fastest goal in Serie A history, scored just before Christmas courtesy of Leão’s right boot, was another good example of the Portuguese being more efficient in front of goal. Just as against Torino, he took the through ball seamlessly into his feet without breaking stride, this time powering past two defenders and again applying a clinical, if maybe slightly fortuitous finish.
The uncompromising way in which he dispatched the opportunity so early in the game was a clear sign of a player bursting with confidence. Having outperformed his xG in both 18/19 and 19/20, he is on course to do so again, which indicates a clinical streak that, if nurtured properly, could turn him into an assassin in front of goal.
One of the main arguments that the Rossoneri’s detractors have had this season is that they are far too reliant on the 39-year-old Ibrahimović, and although there is a lack of clear alternatives to the big Swede in Stefano Pioli’s young squad, Leão has emerged as a genuinely useful deputy.
The three goals in the seven games he has been involved in since Ibrahimovic was forced off against Napoli in November will certainly give Pioli comfort that he is in good hands should his top scorer succumb to injury again, and if we take a bigger sample size, after scoring just twice in his first 22 appearances, Leao now has nine goals in his last 23 Serie A games. Further proof of the steady improvement that he has shown since the restart of the league in June.
There are still things that can be better; his decision making can be erratic, and for a man standing at 6’2”, he should be much more of an aerial threat than he currently is. Two headed career goals is a paltry return for an attacking player of such height, and seeing as only Inter have scored more headed goals than their Milan neighbours this season, this is something that should be addressed as the season progresses.
But having seen the strides he has made in recent months, and with a mentor to hand who has over 50 headed goals to his name, some of them defying logic, who would bet against Leão adding this to his already impressive arsenal, sooner rather than later? But these are minor issues that can, and most likely will, be ironed out. With so much of his career still ahead of him, Milan fans will be hoping that this steady but noticeable improvement continues, and that he becomes another in the long line of beneficiaries to have learnt from playing with one of the best centre forwards of this century.
It was fitting that as Ibrahimović made his comeback on Saturday evening, it was Leão who made way for him for the final five minutes. The Swedish superstar is undoubtedly still the main man at San Siro but should age finally begin to catch up with him as he tries to drag Milan over the line, he can rest safe in the knowledge that his manager may just have unearthed an unlikely heir to warm his throne.