For a long time, AC Milan have been limited by their seeming over-reliance on Rafael Leao. Samuel Chukwueze helps to shed that ‘one-man team’ tag.
When Rafael Leao went off injured in AC Milan’s Serie A encounter with Lazio in May, there was unease inside San Siro.
Not due to the tussle for the Champions League spots — Milan’s 2-0 victory over the capital club put them in a promising position — but an upshot of their talisman possibly missing the European doubleheader with Inter Milan.
Milan’s untold reliance on Rafael Leao
The first of both fixtures was to be held four days after beating Maurizio Sarri’s men, but Leao faced a race against time. With him, Stefano Pioli’s troops had nothing to fear. Without him, they were fighting a losing battle.
Leao was uninvolved in the semi-final first leg, where an ineffective Milan side offered little attacking threat in a 2-0 loss. The reverse fixture featured an out-of-sorts Leao, but the Rossoneri could mount only a few threatening attacking actions at Inter's goal.
This was in contrast to the wide attacker’s prominence in the all-Italian quarter-final clash with Napoli, in which his menace in transition was underlined in both fixtures.
Leao should have scored at San Siro but dragged an effort just wide; however, the winger made up for that miss by setting up Olivier Giroud in the reverse fixture, putting Pioli’s men 1-0 up on the night and 2-1 up on aggregate.
21:50 - 17.04.2023
The Rossoneri’s attacking transitions have punished the Partenopei in recent games, and the side trailing will strive not to play into Milan’s hands again.
The Portugal international had dominated the league encounter between the clubs at the start of April, scoring the first and third in a shock 4-0 thrashing of eventual champions Napoli at the Maradona.
Brahim Diaz was another decisive player in Naples, and the wide playmaker’s right-wing berth will be occupied by the latest Milan arrival Samuel Chukwueze.
How AC Milan signed Samuel Chukwueze from Villarreal
Diaz’s return to parent club Real Madrid meant the Rossoneri had a hole to fill in their squad, with Chukwueze replacing the Spaniard, who spent three years on loan.
How Milan have gone about acquiring the Nigeria international is smart and possibly makes them title favourites heading into the imminent Serie A season due to the seeming squad depth.
Italian clubs’ gloomy financial realities are common knowledge, forcing them to sell off saleable assets before reinvesting into the squad. With Leao agreeing to a five-year extension at the start of June, the Rossoneri moved on another player who could command a reasonable transfer fee — Sandro Tonali.
Despite being a boyhood Milanisti, the 2022 Scudetto winners let go of the 23-year-old and have since used the funds acquired to strengthen several areas in the squad. Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Christian Pulisic have arrived from Chelsea, Tijjani Reijnders was signed from AZ Alkmaar and Noah Okafor recently completed his move from RB Salzburg.
Chukwueze is the fifth first-team player acquired by Milan this summer, beefing up a group that finished fourth last season, a staggering 20 points adrift of Napoli.
In a summer that their rivals have done minimal business, Pioli’s men could be serious challengers for another league title if this group coalesces.
What Samuel Chukwueze brings to Milan
Milan’s best performances in 2022-23 came in matches they flourished in transition, and the Nigerian fits into the Italian club’s inclination to create danger from counter-attacking situations.
The Super Eagle flourished after Quique Setien arrived at the Estadio de la Ceramica in late October, with 10 of the winger’s 11 goal involvements in LaLiga coming after Unai Emery departed for Aston Villa.
Chukwueze’s enduring strength is his ability to take on players and carry the ball aggressively into dangerous positions before fashioning goalscoring chances or shooting at goal.
Only Vinicius Junior (27) and Rodrygo (25) outdid the Nigerian’s 24 successful take-ons that preceded a shot attempt and the Villarreal wide attacker (5) ranked third behind Nicolas Jackson (7) and Rodrygo (6) for take-ons leading to a goal in Spain’s top flight.
00:26 - 09.04.2023
The Super Eagles star put Real Madrid to the sword on Easter weekend, and is thriving within Quique Setien's system at Villarreal
According to Fbref, Chukwueze ranks in the 97th percentile for dribbling past his marker and 91st percentile for progressive carries among wingers or attacking midfielders. Strikingly, the website lists Leao as one of 10 players with a similar statistical profile to Chukwueze.
Would Samuel Chukwueze get game time in Milan?
The USMNT star’s versatility makes him an option for the opposite flank — frequently occupied by Leao — and in a central attacking role, but he performs optimally in the former.
Chukwueze got more starts (27) and more minutes (2339) last term than in previous campaigns in Spain, outranked by only three players at the Ceramica, so the upshot of increased competition in Milanello on the forward’s match action remains to be seen.
Admittedly, there are still doubts about the Nigerian’s consistency. But he moves to Milan on the back of registering more direct goal contributions than in previous seasons in LaLiga, and 24 involvements (13 goals, 11 assists) in all competitions is a solid base for Pioli to work with in Milanello.
Milan have needed to be weaned off their Leao dependency for a while, with an underwhelming Champions League semi-final exit to Inter underscoring that need.
Chukwueze’s arrival, along with the astute business done by the Rossoneri, should shed that overreliance on one player.