It’s safe to say that 2022 was one hell of a year for the mercurial talent that is Rafael Leão. In his third season in Italy, the 23-year-old helped Milan conquer the Scudetto for the first time in 11 years, was voted Serie A MVP, ranked 14th place in the Ballon d’Or voting, hit double figures for both goals and assists in the league and scored his first couple of goals for A Seleção, at the World Cup no less.
A captivating talent who possesses a seemingly innate ability to drift past defenders with ease, Leão seemingly has the world at his feet. The man from Almada has by no means had a straightforward beginning to his professional career thus far, but since arriving in Italy his rise has been nothing short of exponential – and it feels like he is only just getting started.
Career Beginnings: Turmoil in Lisboa
Born and raised in Almada – a city that is separated from Portugal’s capital city by the 25 de Abril bridge, Leão joined Sporting Clube de Portugal’s academy at the tender age of nine. The electric young forward impressed as he moved through the youth rankings at both club and international level. Leão was part of the Portugal U17 team which won the UEFA U17 European Championships in 2016 and just a year later he made his professional debut – coming on as substitute for Sporting B and scoring a late equaliser vs. Braga B as a 17-year-old.
The young attacker would go on to make five senior appearances for the club before leaving under tumultuous circumstances – an exit which he is still, quite literally, paying the price for today.
Leão was one of the Sporting players who opted to terminate their contract following an attempted attack on players and staff at the club’s Alcochete training complexby angry Sporting supporters. The Portuguese winger signed for French side Lille and it was at this point that Sporting filed a complaint with FIFA, claiming that they were owed money to the sum of €45million (Leão’s release clause). The talented youngster lost his appeal and has since been ordered by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to pay £13.8million to Sporting due to a unilateral breach of contract. This is a constantly developing story which seemingly changes every couple of months, with Leão, Lille, Sporting and more recently Milan locked into this contract dispute. Hardly the ideal start to your senior career.
Leão went on to make 24 Ligue 1 appearances (16 starts) for Lille, scoring eight goals and providing two assists as Les Dogues finished runners-up to PSG. At the end of the season Rafa packed up his suitcase and was once more on the move, this time to Italy and to the Rossoneri. His third club and third country in as many years.
Beginnings at Milan
Milan paid Lille OSC a reported sum of around £30 million for the services of the then-20-year-old, with the Italian club sensing that they could be the ones to provide the pacy attacker with a suitable environment for him to gain consistency and fulfil his unbridled potential.
His first two seasons at the club saw Milan finish sixth, and then second in Serie A as the club edged ever closer to their first Scudetto title since 2010-11. Leão’s performances, much like Milan’s, improved each season, with the winger scoring six goals and providing one assist in his first campaign in Serie A before scoring six goals and providing six assists in his second.
The early stages of his Milan career saw Leão operate in a couple of different positions, with first Marco Giampaolo and then Stefano Pioli trying to work out how to get the best out of this raw, young talent. In his first season, Leão at times featured alongside Krzysztof Piatek as part of a front two and after the signing of veteran Zlatan Ibrahimović in January, Leão partnered the Swede as the left-sided striker in a front two, using his pace to make runs both out wide and more centrally. Leão also spent time as a central striker in a 4-3-3 as well as featuring as a right-winger on the odd occasion. As a result of playing centrally at times in the first two seasons, his take-on and chances created numbers pale in comparison to those he put up when playing consistently as a left-winger later in his Milan career.
The 2020-21 campaign – Leão’s second season at the club – was one of great significance for the Rossoneri as itsaw them qualify for the UEFA Champions League for the first time since 2013-14; ending an almost unthinkable period of absence from the illustrious competition for one of Europe’s most decorated clubs.
On a personal level, qualifying for the Champions League was a hugely significant achievement for Leão too, as it meant that he would be playing amongst Europe’s elite for the very first time in his career the following season.
In what was his third season in Italy, 2021-22 was truly Leão’s year. Direct, aggressive, skilful, and packing lots of end product – it was a true breakout campaign for the Portugal international and since then he’s not looked back.
He was instrumental in Milan winning their first Scudetto in 11 years, scoring 11 goals and providing eight assists – finishing the season as both Milan’s top league goalscorer and top provider.
No match that season quite encapsulated Leão’s influence on Milan more than the game against Sassuolo on the final day of the Serie A season, with Pioli’s side simply needing to win to secure the title ahead of bitter rivals Internazionale. Leão ran riot, providing a hat-trick of assists in a 19-minute period and Milan ran out 3-0 winners. Job done.
Leão would then go on to be named Serie A MVP for 2021-22, with league CEO Luigi De Siervo remarking that Leão’s “football exuberance, unpredictability, athletic strength and technique at speed already make him a top player, one of the brightest talents at the international level.” High praise indeed.
The personal accolades didn’t end there either, Leão found himself on the Ballon d’Or top 25 list – finishing 14th overall, an incredible achievement considering 2021-22 was practically his breakthrough season (the first time he’d started 25+ league matches). Leão’s ranking also meant that for the first time since 2006, Cristiano Ronaldo was not the highest-rated Portuguese player according to the Ballon d’Or rankings.
Leão appearing so high on the Ballon d’Or list will not have come as a surprise to many though, including Milan teammate Alexis Saelemaekers who remarked back in August 2021 that Leão was the “purest talent” at the club, before going on to say: “I have already told him several times that if he wants to, he can win the Ballon d’Or.”
Operating primarily on the left-hand side of Stefano Pioli’s 4-2-3-1 system, Leão gives Milan a creative spark in wide areas where he can terrorise defenders – particularly in one-vs-one situations. Leão’s direct style of attacking where he looks to aggressively accelerate past the defender makes him a nightmare for Serie A full backs to face.
Since the start of 2021-22, Leão has attempted the most take-ons in the league (268), has completed more successful take-ons than any other player (134) and he has the best take on success of any player in the top 14 for take-on attempts (50%).
After leading the league for take-ons last season, Leão has picked up where he left off and currently leads for most completed take-ons in 2022-23 (36). His end product has improved year on year too. Since the beginning of last season, no player has completed more take-ons followed by a chance created than Leão’s 14 and he also leads the division for most take-ons followed by a shot (22), demonstrating that he can effectively use his world-class dribbling ability to get past defenders and into situations where he can create big chances and engineer good shooting opportunities for himself, as opposed to dribbling past an opponent and then failing to back it up with good end product.
This trend of Leão’s productivity increasing season upon season looks as though it’s going to continue this year too.
Last season, his most productive full season to date, Leão played 2,618 minutes in Italy’s topflight and provided 19 goal involvements, giving him an average of a goal contribution every 138 minutes.
This season, despite Milan not performing to the same level as in the previous campaign, Leão’s averages are even better. The 23-year-old has played 1,527 minutes in Serie A (17 starts, four sub apps) and has scored eight goals and provided five assists – giving him an average of a goal contribution roughly every 117 minutes.
One of his finest performances in a Milan shirt also came this season as the Rossoneri battled back from 1-0 down to beat Inter 3-2 in the Derby della Madonnina back in September. The left-winger had a hand in all three Milan goals, scoring the equaliser, assisting Olivier Giroud for the second before scoring his side’s third and final goal.
Since the start of 2021-22, Leão ranks in fourth for most non-penalty goal involvements (32), as well as ranking fifth for non-penalty shots (233) across the whole of Serie A. Taking just this current season into account, Leão continues to put up good numbers. It’s important to state that 2021-22 isn’t doing the heavy lifting here, either – the Milan star has continued to post impressive attacking metrics this season, with 13 non-penalty goal involvements (fourth highest) and the third highest non-penalty shot involvements in the competition (91).
When you look at Leão’s numbers in comparison to just his Milan team-mates, it becomes even clearer just how influential he is at the club. Leão has attempted 80 take-ons which is 43 more than Théo Hernandez – the next player on the list. Leão also leads the club for most shots (60) and has created the most chances at the club (eight). He also sits at the top of both the goals and assist table at Milan with eight and five respectively. In terms of touches in the opposition box only Olivier Giroud has more than Leão’s 103 with 107.
Since the start of last season, he’s been involved in 60 more open play attacking sequence involvements than any other Milan player (267), with the vast majority of these being as the player on the end of the move taking the shot (154).
Internationally, Leão has a huge opportunity to establish himself as Portugal’s leading man as new boss Roberto Martínez looks to usher in a new generation for A Seleção. Despite not starting a match at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Leão was able to showcase his abundance of talent by scoring just three minutes after coming on against Ghana before netting his second goal of the tournament against Switzerland – this time after just five minutes on the pitch. When Leão entered the stage for Portugal, there was a sense that something was going to happen: he was an outlet, a player capable of picking up the ball and driving his side from one end of the pitch to the other.
At just 23 and with only three starts to his name, Leão is still relatively new to the senior international stage, but he is expected to be part of Martínez’s first Portugal squad in March when A Seleção take on Liechtenstein and Luxembourg.
Contract Issues and the Future
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Leão and Milan in recent times, however. Leão was dropped to the bench for the 5-2 defeat at home to Sassuolo and came on as a substitute against Inter in the recent Milan derby; a match that Inter won 1-0.
Pioli has come in for recent criticism for his decision to switch to a back three, while there are also audible rumblings regarding Leão’s contract situation – with reports suggesting negotiations are stalling due to a lower release clause. His current release clause is set at €150 million and Leão’s team would reportedly like to see that figure significantly reduced in order to give him a fair chance to depart in the future, especially if the club fail to qualify for the Champions League this season. If Milan and Leão fail to come to some sort of agreement, he will depart the club when his contract expires next June.
A host of Europe’s top clubs including Chelsea, Manchester City and Real Madrid have all been linked with a move for Leão in the past and it is safe to say they will be watching his current contract situation very carefully.