Why was Rafael Leao left out of AC Milan’s XI for their Derby della Madonnina loss to Inter?

As AC Milan's biggest attacking threat and one of the very best forward players in Serie A, Rafael Leao being left out of AC Milan's XI in the derby against Inter shocked pretty much everybody.

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Stefano Pioli’s decision to leave Rafael Leao on the AC Milan bench for their 1-0 loss to Inter in the Derby della Madonnina on Serie A Matchday 21 came as a surprise to everybody who follows not only the Rossoneri, but Italian football as a whole.

The Portuguese was Serie A’s MVP for the 2021/22 season and was hugely influential in Milan’s 3-2 win over Inter earlier this season as well. Back in September 2022, he scored twice and assisted Olivier Giroud for Milan’s other goal as they came from behind to beat the Nerazzurri with relative ease.

Although Leao hasn’t been enjoying his best form, few could have predicted that he would have no place in Pioli’s XI, and he wasn’t even the first attacking option that the coach turned to in an attempt to turn the game around after falling 1-0 behind to a Lautaro Martinez header, with Brahim Diaz coming on ahead of him.

Why was Leao on the bench against Inter?

La Gazzetta dello Sport have reported that the reason for Leao’s omission was mostly due to his current fitness levels. Marco Pasotto wrote on the day of the game that Leao had been running on empty, but also made the argument that most coaches would see the Portuguese as the kind of player who simply has to play in games of the magnitude of a Milan Derby, even carrying a knock or without being fully fit.

Speaking before the game, Pioli himself hinted that the decision to sit Leao on the bench was tactical.

“I chose to play with two forwards close to one another and, for this, I think [Divock] Origi and [Olivier] Giroud are better suited,” Pioli said. “But Rafa will come in handy as the game progresses.”

Rafael Leao celebrates. (@acmilan)

When Leao came on, though, he was the only attacking spark that Milan had, and he created their best chance by teeing up Giroud on the end of a counterattack, only for the Frenchman to take a heavy touch and let the chance slip. His impact only led to further questioning of the decision.

Leao has a lot of ability, but we chose to play with two strikers to give Inter’s defence problems,” Pioli said after the game. “The choices I made were what I thought were best for the team based on what I had seen during the week, and he doesn’t quite have those characteristics [to play as one of two strikers].”

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