• Mon. Mar 27th, 2023

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How Rafael Leao harnesses chaos to create footballing beauty at AC Milan

The Athletic

Which AC Milanthe miserable title defense continues to meander, another distant dream vaguely beginning to take shape.

They have achieved their first The Champions League Quarter-finals in 11 years after ending an 11-year wait for a scudetto. There they meet Napoli, who this year have run away with their crown. Meanwhile, last season’s challengers Inter Milan potentially await in the semi-finals.

Three Italian teams sit on one side of the tie. Only Benfica can prevent one of them from reaching the final.

Milan needed Rafael Leao blowing his compatriots out of their shoes domestically last season and they will be hoping he can do it again in Europe.

Fast, tall and well-built, Leao’s explosive wing play has taken Stefano Pioli’s side to new heights over the past two years.

One of only three players with at least 10 goals and assists Series A last season – reaching that milestone with three assists in 19 minutes to seal the league title on the final day – few can turn anything into something as regularly as the Portuguese 23-year-old.

Even throughout this relatively understated era, a relentless pursuit of chaos sets him apart.

With 71 attempts on goal – about 3.7 per 90 minutes – there were only strikers Victor Osimhen and Lautaro Martinez have tried harder. An average of 5.1 “box entries” — or combined passes and dribbles into the penalty area — captures his tenacity.

Works primarily on the left, Leao is terrifying in transition, tearing up the turf. His long strides stand nearly 189cm and allow him to glide past his peers with a Usain Bolt-like swagger – chest puffed out, head held high, with the odd quick glance to the side to make sure he’s won the race.

In one of many high-profile moves last season, Leao’s run in Verona to complete a turnaround in Milan remains one of his best-timed exploits. Leao senses an opportunity when the ball breaks for Alexis Saelemaekers and sets the goal on the green grass ahead. Watch this clock and indeed poor Antonin Barak one foot ahead.

Within six seconds, Leao has driven past Barak and left a through ball that sends him just wide. He collects the loose ball and drives up the left half, before slowing down a bit and moving towards his Czech pursuer…

He then speeds away, turning into the penalty area before Sandro Tonali went perfectly on track — just eight seconds after resuming his drive 80 meters further on, with a slight detour and a deliberate deceleration along the way…

Game turned on its head in one power cycle.

Leao is also becoming more adept at using his frame to get into more valuable positions earlier in his runs.

In a similar tie breaking goal, this time in the 96th minute for Empoli, Leao finds himself chasing down a cross from Ante Rebic…

Even with such space to jump into, the striker makes his move early and takes the outside of his boot to deflect the run in front Petar Stojanovic and into a more central channel, where he can defend the ball with his body…

Then, as Razvan Marin charges in at the other end, Leao makes another subtle change of direction to ensure he can protect the ball from the midfielder with his right thigh.

He shows incredible athleticism to sprint the length of the pitch so late in the game, follows it up with presence of mind to ensure separation from chasing defenders and then finishes with composure to produce a perfectly weighted scooped finish at full speed…

There are few people who can control counters quite like Leao.

In tight areas, Leao is also adept at sliding through challenges and into pockets of space.

Especially around the penalty area, he will often look to use skillful changes of direction and sudden acceleration to wind past defenders.

In the 3-2 win over Inter recently, Leao left Stefan de Vrij and Alessandro Bastoni on the wrong foot with a tip to the right and a quick duck to the left…

Then bursts through the gap and into the penalty area before either has time to react and closes it out with a confident, far-post goal.

And against Verona, again in this game last May, Leao receives the ball in a wide, unexpected position, apparently in a corner by two goalkeepers…

But when he stands up to his man, he flies from outside to inside to leave his defender stunned and sprints to the touchline before producing a nutmeg square ball to assist Tonali…

Undaunted by tight spaces and aggressive signs, Leao is gone when you commit too much.

Moments of game-changing magic never seem far away.

Leao has not scored for Milan in over two months, but his more central performance against Tottenham Hotspur last week encapsulated his energy, seemingly on course to tear the game open at any time.

With six attempts to hustle, including a signature field-destroying run in the dying embers, he committed four fouls and drove into the box twice, took three shots and created three more chances.

He has made 28 successful Champions League appearances this season and averaged 5.3 attempts per game in Serie A, before following up his incisive runs with shots or key passes.

It feels like a move in could be the next try for Leao, who possesses the physicality to compete with solid centre-backs.

Maybe covered up Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s incredible replacement season, Leao’s attacking numbers are quietly on course to surpass last season’s heights, with eight goals and six assists equivalent to just over 19 90-minute games this campaign.

The underlying numbers are also excellent, taking more shots than he has in the past, creating more expected goals (xG), completing more passes into both the final third and the penalty area while collecting more expected assists (xA) per game than he has. in his previous four seasons at the pro level.

Leao’s jump has been clear this season. He averages close to two key passes and more than four forward balls per game.

From central areas, he is also capable of dropping deep and orchestrating fluid team moves.

Against Atalanta this month, for example, after jumping into midfield to receive the pass, Leao drags Rafael Toloi out of the back four, leaving space for others to attack.

Constantly scanning the space, he looks over his shoulder long before accepting the pass…

And again, with the ball on the way, Junior Messias is spotted running into the space he has left…

Before giving the first pass of the half, sent his partner through the goal to score.

With Toloi close to the center line when Messias receives the ball, Leao not only pulls the defender away, but also assesses the development of the attack and plays the ball for the first time to catch the defense flat-footed.

One issue for the 23-year-old is that at times it can feel like he goes into attacks with his eyes on the green ahead, almost forgetting to have the ball with him.

A Leao viewer can almost be as impressed. Even blind swim races are exciting, interesting and usually relatively productive, often mixing in advanced positions and driving his team up the field.

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Inconsistency is a factor, but it’s hard to accuse Leao of lacking attacking attempts. Only once has the striker failed to take a shot or register a key pass for Milan this season. He has also attempted five times in more than half of his Serie A appearances this campaign.

However, the same cannot be said about his defensive contribution. He ranks in the bottom one percent of all wingers for tackles, blocks and touches in his own defensive third. At a time when pressing as a unit is often paramount to success, perhaps defensive discipline is the next area for Leao to focus on.

That said, in terms of audacity, quickness and football spectacle, very few can match his potential to set the world on fire.

(Top photo: Stefano Guidi/Getty Images)

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