On matchday 2, as AC Milan hosted Torino at San Siro, the Rossoneri scored a goal that felt…different.
It was smashed home by Christian Pulisic in the 33rd minute, following a powerful take-on run and cross by Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Two players who played in Chelsea blue last season, now combining in red and black this term - was that why it stood out?
No, that wasn’t it. Upon closer inspection, it was less about who was involved and more about who wasn’t. Not one of the four players surging forward in the attack - Pulisic and RLC joined by Olivier Giroud and fellow new boy Tijjani Reijnders - bore the name Leão on their backs. Milan’s star forward wasn’t remotely involved; in fact, he wasn’t even in camera shot as the ball hit the back of the net.
Believe it or not: This is fantastic news.
As Milan’s 2022-23 season fizzled out against arch-rivals Inter in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals back in May, their overdependence on Leão reached a point of critical danger. Due to injury, they were forced to go into battle without him in the home first leg, looking offensively clueless in a 2-0 loss. Passed half-fit at best for the return leg a week later, he flashed a shot wide of the post as the rest of the team huffed and puffed to no avail.
This no doubt served as a watershed moment for the Milan hierarchy, who resolved to use the summer transfer window to diversify the attacking corps. Relying on Leão (or the left side in general) to such an extent had not only become profoundly unhealthy, but also progressively easier for opponents to plan for. The number of double- and triple-teams Leão faced in 2022-23 was a huge compliment to his abilities - but at times a roadblock the Rossoneri could not overcome. (Sidenote: Kvhicha Kvaratskhelia of Napoli is now experiencing the same treatment).
The only way to prevent this continuing is to strengthen elsewhere. In Leão’s case, as a left winger, the fix was to bring in legitimate right-sided talented, the type who could offer balance to the attack and shift focus off Leão - or, if opponents continued to pay special attention to him, make them pay for leaving space open on the other flank.
Enter Pulisic. Enter Samuel Chukwueze.
Pulisic, signed for €22 million, has made an immediate impact, starting all 3 games, scoring twice and sparking a quick connection on the pitch with Giroud, who he also played with for a spell at Chelsea. He did not live up to expectations at Stamford Bridge (bar the glorious lockdown spell), but a cleaner run at consistent games in Milan sets him up for a bounceback.
⚽️ No team have scored more goals in Serie A this season than AC Milan (8) pic.twitter.com/LKs5ZVabkv— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) September 14, 2023
Chukwueze, signed for €20 million, has so far stepped off the bench but will work into the rotation now European competition is set to begin. He had a coming of age season with Villarreal in 2022-23, scoring 6, assisting 5 and delivering the sort of dominant performances that suggested he’s taken “the leap” a winger needs to to hit the top level.
Opposing defences must now account for one or both of these players (Pulisic can and will play some football as the No. 10), while also keeping a beady eye on Leão and Theo Hernández on the left. Giroud, in the middle, is lapping up chances from either side and converting the penalties this talented cohort are winning.
When you add in Loftus-Cheek’s bruising runs and Reijnders’ surgical passing, it feels like Milan are set to become a more balanced threat in 2023-24. Crucially, though, none of this has lessened Leão’s ability to define a game: He’s already scored an overhead kick, assisted a beautiful Theo goal and won two penalties!
This team now looks good enough, balanced enough and deep enough to challenge for the Scudetto once again. Many assumed it would be Inter who stole into pole position now that Napoli have lost key pieces from their title win, but their cross-town rivals dressed in red and black might well have something to say about it.