Could a New Role Be in Store for Milan Star Leao?

Stefano Pioli starting Rafael Leao as a false-nine in the Milan Derby looked like a Hail Mary by a coach trying to prove he still has some aces up his sleeves in the twilight of his tenure. It didn’t work, as the Rossoneri were too toothless. It wasn’t necessarily only the Portuguese’s fault. Their attitude was submissive for the majority of the game.

Yet, there could be something there position-wise. Despite some slumps and multiple apathetic performances, the star will register solid numbers this campaign. He’s up to 13 goals and 13 assists across all competitions. Compared to the previous one, he’s been more effective in Europe and less in Serie A. He had finished with a double-double domestically, hitting the net 15 times. He might not get to ten, which is slightly worrying.

A Necessary Improvement

While he’s the driving force of their offense whether he’s finding the target or not, surely the team wouldn’t mind more consistency and better production. They successfully de-emphasized his importance thanks to last summer’s purchases. Christian Pulisic has vastly outperformed all their previous right wingers, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, while very different, has made up for Brahim Diaz’s production from the no.10 role. But most of their actions still start, and occasionally end, with the 24-year-old. A new center-forward who’s a playmaker on top of a goal poacher would continue such a process.

Yet, Leao upping his scoring and getting to the 20-goal threshold domestically would bring the Milan offense to new heights. From a technical standpoint, seeing some of his finishes, he’s not really lacking anything. The only problem is that he rarely bags the easy ones. His nose for those might not be pristine, but he’s also very rarely in position to take advantage of favorable situations or pounce on loose balls in the box.

The no.9 role most likely isn’t in his future, even though it would take the chestnuts out of the fire for his team. Their search for a new striker might turn out to be more expensive and challenging than they would like. Instead, pairing him up with somebody more physical, a younger version of Olivier Giroud, could help.

The Benefits

A few players with traits akin to his have completed such a transition with major benefits. Kylian Mbappé and Cristiano Ronaldo are on another level, but he’s not too far off in terms of sheer talent. They have progressively gotten closer to the goal as their career advanced. The results have been terrific.

Leao moving to the middle of the Milan attack would add a ton of unpredictability. At this point, every team expects them to attack primarily down the flank, also due to Theo Hernandez’s presence. They are tough to stop anyway when both have it going, but the most prepared coaches load up defensively on that side of the pitch to stymie them. Pulisic and Loftus-Cheek have often feasted thanks to that.

The Portuguese ace would have more freedom to wander around and decide where to operate to do the most damage with this tweak. In today’s football, the fewer reference points you give the opponents, the merrier. And he’s occasionally left stranded on the wing if the team isn’t working properly.

The Issues

Obviously, such an adjustment would create problems elsewhere. The Rossoneri can’t really switch to 3-5-2 since they have too many good attackers who deserve playing time. That’s perhaps the biggest reservation about Antonio Conte, besides his big personality and demands. It’s not the only scheme he has run throughout his career, though. The halfway point could be 3-4-2-1, which has been popularized by Gian Piero Gasperini. It’d be a step forward but also a compromise. Such a formation is very automatized and the supporting forwards have to track back a lot and only operate in a portion of the pitch.

The ideal scenario would be the oldest of them all, 4-4-2. Loftus-Cheek would be the most hurt, as his role would change drastically moving a few meters back, severely hurting his impact in the final third. But the tradeoff could be worthy, especially with a supercharged frontline with Pulisic and the latest version of Samuel Chukwueze wide.

We’ll see whether their next coach will be creative or stay the course tactically. Getting more out of your best player is always an easy way for a team to improve. They might have to come up with something extra and out of the ordinary to help him.

Is Leao Even Going to Stay at Milan?

The million-dollar question about the upcoming summer window is whether the brass will sell a star to finance their moves again. Considering his fairly recent extension and attachment to the club, Leao is the least likely to leave Milan out of their star-studded trio. Theo Hernandez and Mike Maignan are the other only other real candidates. Conversely, part of their front office probably wouldn’t tear their clothes up in despair if they got a massive offer for him. He’s arguably the easiest to replace, but that’s neither here nor there, even though a few sides are always lurking for him.

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