Rafael Leao is a real talent. Or at least that’s the perception of everyone at AC Milan and the Portuguese Under-20s side. Since arriving from Lille in the summer, the youngster has shown glimpses of his quality and is leaving many happy in dark times.
Last season, Leao was part of a very exciting front three. He would play up front, flanked by Arsenal’s Nicolas Pepe and Jonathan Bamba. Leao didn’t score much, bagging a tally of only eight goals and a couple of assists.
That was his first full season as a first-team player. He came to Lille after much controversy had ensued at Sporting- the club he left on a free transfer. Lille got a very promising player without paying at all. And they sold him on for a fee of €30 million, making just as much of a profit in the whole deal.
Milan got a player who was would replace Patrick Cutrone. The Italian was allowed to leave the Rossoneri for Wolves to make space for a quicker striker/winger in Leao. The club had to endure a loss in the deal, but they got a 20-year-old that many have been expecting to do great things.
As things stand, Leao has scored only once for the club. That goal came as a consolation in the Rossoneri’s embarrassing 3-1 loss to Fiorentina. But Leao won the club a penalty against Genoa and has been making an impact when coming on from the bench. He was the club’s best player in a 2-0 loss to Inter.
Krzysztof Piatek’s performances have been dipping. That did allow Leao sometime some weeks ago. But under Stefano Pioli, Piatek is now back as the regular upfront. But it is only giving a false sense of stagnation when it comes to Leao.
This season, Leao hasn’t exactly found his position in his team. Against Inter, he started on the left. Piatek is a regular up front, meaning Leao’s position as the central striker is not as guaranteed. The Portuguese has always been playing in that position, be it at Lille, for the Portugal Under-20s side or at Sporting in his younger days.
In the 2017-18 campaign, Leao had 11 appearances to his name in Liga Pro for Sporting. Despite playing a lot less, he managed to score six times and got one assist. In the same season, he was a regular in the UEFA Youth League, scoring five times and assisting three times while playing upfront.
He was thriving and in a free-flowing system at Lille, he was making room for Bamba and Pepe. His movement was a key reason for why Pepe had a wonderful season. The Frenchman scored 22 times and had 11 assists in just 38 appearances.
That sort of form would not have been possible without Leao, who is still 20 and has been catching defences out with his pace in Serie A. In games against Inter and La Viola, he has done enough to show Rossoneri fans that the club needs to be patient with him.
Any slip-up from Piatek will make Leao a genuine option in his preferred position up front. That will suit the player right in. He is more of a striker who can play in a team that has fluidity in their shape. The flair players Milan have in Hakan Calhanoglu and Suso would suit that.
The money that was spent on him shows that they trust the process of developing him in the long-term. That is the right path indeed.