The comparison to Thierry Henry by Stefano Pioli is quite flattering, but Rafael Leao must remain humble and focused on becoming the best version of himself, writes Matt Santangelo.
Riccardo Saponara was annointed the ‘Italian Kaka’ early last decade at Empoli, and Mattia De Sciglio the next Paolo Maldini. As flattering as player comparisons can be, they set an unrealistic expectation and do a great disservice to a footballer’s psyche early on in his or her
Last week, Milan coach Stefano Pioli was asked about his exciting forward Rafael Leão at his press conference and whether he could reach the level of Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe. The Italian boss, however, referenced another Frenchman who became one of the greats of the game during his time, Thierry Henry.
“He reminds me so much of Henry,” said Pioli to the media after Leão provided a major spark off the bench in an eventual 3-1 win over Roma. Leão, who arrived at San Siro from Lille in 2018 for €28m, is an obvious talent and one who undoubtedly possesses the star power capable of bringing people to their feet. Observe the bright-eyed 22-year old in action with the ball in his court and it is hard not to romanticize his potential.
Much like Henry, Leão has a similar languid, yet physically strong, profile, with elusive movement to his game that comes off so effortlessly.
His expressive play seldom sees him shy away from showcasing himself in the attacking area, where the former Arsenal man often proved to be a notch above the rest. Along with the acceleration and burst of speed, it is the nimble footwork and mesmeric dribbling he wields
that makes him a challenging assignment in 1v1 battles.
Pull up any highlight reel of Henry during his heyday and you will be immediately enamoured with his efficient dribbling and the confidence with which he took on his marker. More than anything else, though, there was that desire to impose himself, taking the game by the scruff to unlock defences; this season, we have seen Leão demonstrate that very characteristic.
Looking beyond goal contributions, the two share some stylistic qualities in their respective play styles. While both are blessed with the lethal combination of size and strength, what Henry accomplished at his historic heights at Arsenal, then subsequently in Barcelona, far exceeds physical traits.
Henry’s CV speaks to a player who became a potential Ballon d’Or winner at the peak of his powers, a football icon and revered legend of the game with years of longevity and that all has a lot to do with what is above the shoulders mentally. Brimming with talent, Leão has an awful lot in his locker that can aid his growth in becoming a perennial elite in the attack. Since pulling on the red and black, the Portuguese has teased and flirted with ability that lends at least a morsel of credibility towards former Sporting academy coach Tiago Fernandes’ bold affirmation of the forward being better than Cristiano Ronaldo at youth level.
Though there are some similarities to Henry and even his fellow countryman, Leão is clearly not at that level yet. He must stay focused, grounded and committed to being the best version of himself. A simple assessment of his game suggests he is extraordinary. But, as the old adage goes, hard work without talent is a shame, but talent without hard work is a tragedy.
“One with his means must think of reaching the top, but talent isn’t enough,” has explained the Milan boss. Ultimately, how Leão applies himself in training and approaches the discipline that is football may decide the trajectory of his career. One thing is clear, and that is Leão has all the right tools to blossom into one of Europe’s most eye-popping talents.