From Rafael Leao to Brahim and Magic Mike Maignan: How AC Milan have learnt to make the most of individual brilliance

AC Milan have changed this season, and then changed again. Stefano Pioli's side aren't what they were, but individual brilliance from Maignan, Leao, Brahim and others have allowed them to remain competitive.

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MILAN: It was Rafael Leao, once again, to mark the difference between AC Milan and their opponents as he scored twice in a 2-0 home victory over Lecce, becoming only the second Portuguese player to score more than 10 goals in two consecutive Serie A seasons, after Cristiano Ronaldo. His brace against the Giallorossi also meant he has improved on his best-ever goal tally in a single Serie A season.

But personal records apart, it’s clear that Leao is currently the Rossoneri’s most in-form player – the way he was able to surf through the entire length of the opponents’ half and produce a clinical finish after 75 minutes once again proved he’s back to his best, after scoring just four Serie A goals from the previous 14 games since the turn of the year.

AC Milan’s Rafael Leao celebrates. [@acmilan]

As much as a win against relegation-threatened Lecce could have been considered an easy task, the contest had remained in balance for longer than many might have expected – Leao had opened the scoring in the first half with an uncharacteristically towering header that allowed AC Milan to exhale a sigh of relief after a massive chance wasted by Lameck Banda, but despite looking in control the only tangible threat the Rossoneri could muster in the second 45 was a central shot from Brahim Diaz.

Ultimately, it was their ability to capitalise on a moment of individual brilliance that helped them wrap up a crucial win in a game that saw Lecce even produce more expected goals than the hosts (0.98 vs 1.13) and the plot somehow reminded of the way the Rossoneri got better of Napoli in a heated two-legged Champions League tie, with stunning solo plays from Brahim Diaz and Leao making the difference in each of the games.

AC Milan concede more, but know how to hurt

Mike Maignan in action for AC Milan against Tottenham Hotspur. [@acmilan]

The feeling is that Stefano Pioli is getting to know his team better and, after going through some troubled opening months of 2023, he’s realising how to maximise the potential of his most dangerous weapons and, above all, how to get the best out of a Rossoneri side that have changed this season.

AC Milan looked eager to start strong against Lecce and their tactical setup and choices on the pitch were instrumental to that – Theo Hernandez was constantly floating between the midfield and attacking line in an attempt to lure more players into blocking his runs, while Brahim and Leao repeatedly tried to exploit their dribbling skills by taking on their direct markers, knowing that beating them was arguably the most effective way to unhinge Lecce’s defensive block.

But there could be a specific reason as to why the Rossoneri are going in search of more individual duels – as much as their great team spirit is still a defining trait, they concede more chances compared to the past and don’t give off the same sense of solidity and supremacy that ended up discouraging their rivals from even closing in on their goal, as shown by the fact that they have the worst defence in Serie A’s top seven after 31 games.

How individual qualities help AC Milan in tight contests

AC Milan’s Brahim Diaz celebrates against Napoli. [@acmilan]

In such a context, it becomes vital for them to make the most of the chances they create, and they seem to be perfectly aware that a single moment of brilliance from their strongest players is enough to tip the scales in their favour. Until then, all they have to do is to keep the game balanced, for which they can rely on a superb Mike Maignan, whose saves are just as important as Leao’s meandering dribbles and goals.

With several crucial fixtures awaiting, both in Serie A and the Champions League, the Rossoneri are likely to reproduce the attitude that bore fruit in recent weeks, most notably in the European tie against Napoli.

Their opponents are warned – while they could look more vulnerable than last season, the conviction and trust in their means showed by their most representative players are a threat extremely difficult to deal with, and one that can easily change the fortunes of a match.

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