Rafael Leao could be the long-term Hazard replacement Chelsea have craved
Posted on July 13, 2022
Chelsea had believed they'd stolen a march on Barcelona and Arsenal in the race to sign Raphinha from Leeds. The Brazilian does now seem set for a move to the Blaugrana, but not after the Blues had felt they had done enough to lure him to Stamford Bridge. With Raphinha now Camp Nou bound, they'll need to look elsewhere if they do wish to bring in another winger this summer.
Romelu Lukaku's return to Inter coupled with Hakim Ziyech's expected move to AC Milan means Blues boss Thomas Tuchel is wary of being caught short of attacking options ahead of another important campaign. With London rivals Tottenham and Arsenal both adding new faces to their attack, the former bringing in Richarlison from Everton and the latter pulling off quite the coup to land Gabriel Jesus, it's important to add quality to the frontline.
Serge Gnabry and Rafael Leao have both recently been linked with moves to Stamford Bridge and while the former could be viewed as a more direct Raphinha alternative, the latter operates primarly on the opposite flank, though is able to play through the middle if required. Leao was instrumental in AC Milan's title success last season, scoring 11 and providing a further eight assists to help return a WhoScored rating of 7.37, that enough to secure a spot in the Serie A team of the season.
Just as Raphinha does off the right flank, Leao looks to break down the left before cutting infield to maximise his wand of a right foot. Nine of his 11 league goals were with his right foot as the Portuguese star got forward impressively before cutting back to go for goal. A return of 98 successful dribbles was more than any other player in Serie A last season, and while the 23-year-old did return a success rate of just 60.1%, he affords Tuchel the unpredictability the German boss craves.
An issue for the Blues last term was a lack of flexibility in the final third with Lukaku struggling to match Tuchel's demands on the frontline. With Sterling and then one of Gnabry or Leao, he'd at least be able to call upon an array of forwards that are difficult to track, that in itself the opposite of Lukaku, who relied heavily on playing off the shoulder of the last defender, a one-dimensional approach by comparison.
What's more with Leao, Chelsea would have a similar wide option to that of hero Eden Hazard, which in itself would be a huge boost. Hazard, in his pomp, would often receive the ball on the left before cutting inside and this allowed the overlapping full-back to exploit the vacated space. Leao adopts a similar approach, with it no coincidence that AC Milan left-back Theo Hernandez excelled in the Rossoneri's title winning campaign in part due to the Portuguese winger. In Tuchel's favoured three-man defence, where wing-backs play a crucial role, Ben Chilwell, when fit, would thrive in the final third with a winger willing to drag markers away from the left flank to get forward.
What Tuchel may like most though is the offensive versatility that Leao offers. While admittedly best served on the left flank, Leao is able to play through the middle and lead the charge his side and, at a push, operate down the right too. That he is able to play in multiple attacking roles hands Tuchel increased tactical flexibility, safe in the knowledge that Leao is able to dovetail well with his teammates to wreack havoc in the opposition box.
The issue for Chelsea is that if they do wish to sign Leao, they'll have to spend big. The tricky winger is contracted to AC Milan until 2024 and after the season he has had, he won't come cheap. "We consider Rafa Leao untouchable," AC Milan sporting director Paolo Maldini said recently, yet he did add that the player himself had a €150m release clause in his contract. Chelsea would have to break their transfer record for the third summer running if they were to land Leao this year.
For that reason, Gnabry is perhaps the more appealing option for Tuchel given his high work ethic and adaptability on the frontline. The German is out of contract next year and there have been no indications that the 26-year-old is set to extend his stay with Bayern Munich. However, top teams in England have also been linked with a move for Gnabry, whereas there has been little in the way of genuine interest in Leao from the Premier League.
If owner Todd Boehly is prepared to back Tuchel to the hilt, then a big money move for Leao could yet be on the cards, even as AC Milan seek to tie their prized asset down to a long-term deal. He would be the more expensive option of the two wingers, but in spending so much on Leao, Chelsea would finally have a player capable of finally succeeding Hazard at Stamford Bridge to boost their title credentials.
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