Milan fans might worry that Rafael Leao scoring two fantastic goals in the World Cup are making him more appetising for other clubs, but his performances for Portugal also show he’s not ready for that next step yet.
The Rossoneri tried everything to get him locked down to a new contract before the tournament started in Qatar, something his agent refused to do because it was obvious this competition could raise his profile and therefore his asking price even more.
It might be easier for them to accept the €9m per season salary demands if he’s a star on the global stage in the prime of his career.
While two great goals coming off the bench for Portugal certainly did wonders for his reputation, a closer inspection of these games will only highlight why Leao would be doing himself a huge favour by staying at Milan for a few more years.
The 23-year-old has never been short of potential, and when he starts running, the only way to stop him is with a foul, which is why he is just as precious in earning penalties and dangerous free kicks as he is with goals or assists.
However, what makes him so thrilling to watch is also his greatest downfall, and that is his pure enjoyment of the sport. When he’s in the mood, he will have a grin on his face before the lob has even entered the net. When he’s not feeling it, your team is down to 10 men. That can be frustrating, but it’s something the Milan supporters accept because he has given them so much and they know these moments are getting rarer. I can’t imagine a Stamford Bridge crowd would be so understanding or supportive.
Even Portugal coach Fernando Santos said the reason Leao is not in the starting XI is because he’s ‘not ready’ to keep his position or help out defensively, noting the winger is given ‘more freedom’ at Milan.
This is entirely by design because Stefano Pioli is prepared to adapt the rest of the squad to work around Leao’s little quirks in order to get the best out of him, and make sure someone else is ready to do the tracking back and defensive duties. Would another top-level club like Chelsea give him that much leeway, or be prepared to put up with his body language when he looks like he’s zoned out just wandering around miles off the ball?
Pioli said several times in recent months that Leao’s ‘body language is the problem,’ because he wears his heart on his sleeve. You can see the joy in his game when he plays well, and you can just as clearly see the disinterest, like a bored teenager listening to an uncle’s interminable anecdote at Christmas.
Ask Romelu Lukaku what it’s like when moving to Chelsea with the pressure of a huge price tag, losing all the support network you had in the team and with a coach who had finally been able to transform your potential into a consistent period of devastating form. It’s not the same as just carrying on, you don’t have that build-up of goodwill from fans and media, quite the opposite.
Milan nurtured and waited for Rafael Leao to flourish when many would’ve already got fed up with his remarkable ability to always pick the wrong finish or pass when running into a great position. It took him a very, very long time to learn how to curb that instinct and become more clinical in front of goal, but even now, he’s not the finished product yet. If he leaves the warm shoulder of San Siro for an environment where much bigger stars than him are chewed up and spat out regularly, he will stunt his own development and potentially wreck his career.
If the performances seen for Portugal at the World Cup have taught us anything about Rafael Leao, it is that he is not prepared to make the big step up from Milan to any other club, because they will not give him the same tactical freedom, nurturing atmosphere or accumulated love that he currently thrives on in Italy. He is only 23 years old, there is so much time ahead of him to go that extra mile and perhaps by the time he is ready to do so, the Rossoneri might even have returned to the level of ambition that he aspires to as well.