Whenever dark times linger at a club, there is always a spark that gives fans hope. Over the last few years, AC Milan have been no strangers to dark times. The ongoing troubled period has led to the sacking of Marco Giampaolo, but the gloom hasn’t overshadowed every positive. Indeed, summer signing Rafael Leao has been Milan’s source of hope and inspiration.
The Portuguese has been a constant threat ever since he made his first start for the Diavolo against Inter. As per Whoscored, the 20-year-old has made 2 dribbles per game. Whenever he gets on the ball, he looks to make something happen. He is direct and defenders struggle to keep his pace in check. Ask Diego Godin or German Pezzella.
In these troubled times, Leao has done more going forward than Krzysztof Piątek. The Polish striker has looked short of confidence and isolated upfront. Giampaolo’s possession-based system failed Piatek, who hardly got involved in the game and the two goals he scored were from the spot. Lack of service didn’t help him under the former Sampdoria boss as the limited cohesion in midfield left him lonely upfront.
But Giampaolo took off Piatek in Milan’s win over Genoa and replaced him with Leao. The summer signing from Lille thrived and his dynamism dragged the Genoa defense all across the pitch.
It is worth noting that Leao played as Lille’s first-choice striker last season and did the same for the Portuguese Under-20s side in this summer’s FIFA Under-20s World Cup. His goal against Fiorentina came when he was in a striker’s position and the way he won the penalty against Genoa was quite the same.
For Lille last season, Leao was the dynamic unit that helped Nicolas Pepe thrive. His direct running on and off the ball kept defenders on their toes. He also won 1.2 aerial duels per game. He didn’t pass or dribble much, completing only 10 passes per game and completing only 0.7 dribbles per game (as per Whoscored). But his movement in-behind the defense and link-up with Pepe and Jonathan Bamba was key to Lille’s counter-attacking system.
New Rossoneri boss Stefano Pioli likes to play a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 system which relies heavily on a complete striker. He had Mauro Icardi at Inter and Giovanni Simeone at La Viola. Pioli wants his strikers to not just finish and score, but press high up the pitch and get involved in play.
Icardi and Simeone are more complete forwards than Piatek. As per Understat, Simeone had 2.41 shots per game last season- similar to Leao’s tally of 2.56. But Leao had more assists per 90 minutes at 0.21 than Simeone at 0.11. Piatek, on the other hand, did have 3.60 shots on goal per 90 minutes, but he had 0 assists per game and a lesser key-passes per game rate than the Argentine. That is a clear sign of what sort of striker is more complete.
Piatek is very proficient aerially but Leao is more mobile a striker than the former Il Grifone man. The Portuguese presents a case of a new breed of strikers. They are good on the ball and almost as good off it. Pioli’s system can demand players to press high up the pitch in an intense fashion and that usually demands more players like Leao.
A look at their metrics from last season also shows as to who is more complete than the other. Leao clearly likes to get more involved in goals than Piatek, who is more about purely goalscoring and getting shots on goal.
More than that, Piatek looks short of confidence too. The Pole had scored only one goal in the last seven games of the previous season before scoring eight times in his first 11 games for the Rossoneri. The fact that he’s only scored a couple of goals; that too from the spot, have led to many questioning whether he was a ‘one-season wonder’.
This is probably the right time to take Piatek out of the firing line and use Leao, who has done a lot already to stake a claim for that starting spot upfront.