While there is no doubting his potential, there is still arguably a fundamental issue which is preventing Rafael Leao from breaking back into the Milan starting XI.
As noted by Football Italia, the Rossoneri signed the youngster from Lille last summer in a deal that was said to be worth around €35m in total.
The 21-year-old has scored five goals and provided two assists in 28 appearances since, and while there have been some positive signs, there are also some negatives ones too as he has much yet to prove.
One of the biggest issues which has perhaps been a significant reason as to why he has been left on the bench for the last 10 consecutive Serie A games is that he’s still not putting in the effort and work-rate needed at this level to show Pioli that he can be relied upon in both phases of the game.
Attacking threat great, but not enough to hang hat on
To be clear, there is no denying that Leao is a serious talent. With his pace, directness and ability to beat players as well as his physical attributes which will develop with age and experience, he has a big future ahead of him if he fulfils his potential.
Further, he has shown the right attitude at times, as evidenced by his three goals in his last five appearances for Milan.
That said, he is not at a stage of his career where scoring goals is enough. He still has a lot to prove, specifically in terms of his mentality and his desire to make sacrifices for the team.
On Sunday night against Napoli, he came on with around 30 minutes to go. For pretty much the entirety of his time on the pitch and with no fans in attendance, you could clearly hear Pioli urging and encouraging him to work harder off the ball by pressing, tracking back and putting pressure on the defenders in possession.
This is not the first time we’ve heard him do that either. This is a reoccurring problem and it’s an issue in itself that a player even needs his coach to keep pushing him to put in the hard yards and help protect a point or a win by doing his bit for the team. At times, the likes of Franck Kessie and Ante Rebic were still outrunning Leao despite playing from the start and the Portuguese ace obviously had the fresh legs.
Many will be questioning why Leao doesn’t get a starting berth given his recent form, especially when he comes off the bench and scores goals. The answer is arguably simple, he’s not working hard enough to warrant that responsibility and trust from Pioli at this stage to play a full 90 minutes.
Given this has been an obvious issue since the restart, it’s unclear at this point what has to happen to see that change in his attitude. Being snubbed would surely light a fire in most players to go out all guns blazing to prove a point, but now it seems there is a relaxed idea of goals being enough.
Leao has a real chance of being a top player at the highest level, but with Pioli even stating after the Lecce win that he “has to do more”, as quoted by Football Italia, it seems that message is still not getting through and it would be a surprise if the youngster isn’t left on the bench again this week.
That said, with Samu Castillejo injured and Alexis Saelemaekers suspended, perhaps he’ll be fortunate that an opportunity opens up for him and Pioli will have to give him a shot at some point, but time will tell as Lucas Paqueta, Ante Rebic, Hakan Calhanoglu and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are all seemingly still ahead of him in the pecking order.