Sporting CP have been blessed with talent due to their magnificent academy system. Ever since the emergence of Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese club have been regarded as boasting one of the most impressive recruitment policies in football.
Recent years has seen the likes of Rui Patricio, Cedric Soares, Joao Moutinho and Joao Mario all emerge onto the scene. The quartet all played important roles during their time at Sporting, while Patricio remains at the club today. Minus Moutinho, these players played an integral role in the Portugal side that won Euro 2016, claiming their first major championship.
Perhaps a critic of the Portugal national team is their lack of a No. 9, it’s an area that they’ve certainly struggled in in the past decade. One player who has the potential to go on to great things is Rafael Leao, and there’s a reason why Manchester United and Manchester City are joined by Real Madrid in the race to sign the 18-year-old.
Born in Almada, just south of Lisbon, Leao seems like the latest talent off the conveyor belt at Sporting CP. He scored his first senior goal for the Verde e brancos against league rivals FC Porto while in just 98 minutes of Liga Nos football, Leao has both scored and created a goal.
Here we analyse some of the key elements that have suggest that Leao could go on to great things.
Attacking the space & movement
At such a young age, it seems that Rafael Leao has already mastered the art of attacking the space. Even at 188cm, the Portugal youth player possesses great pace for someone so tall, which has terrorised the best of defences at youth level.
Even though he’s yet to make his start for Sporting CP, praise is high for Leao who has impressed when being called upon.
Here we see Sporting CP win the ball in midfield, with Porto light in defence. Caught on the break, Leao utilised his pace to get in front of his marker before accelerating between centre-back and full-back, exploiting Porto’s high defensive line.
Latching onto the through ball, Leao showed great composure to score the equaliser against an impressive Porto side. But not only that, his movement across the defensive line allowed Bryan Ruiz more time and space on the ball, with the defence backtracking.
A similar situation occurred in the UEFA Youth League. Juventus failed to put pressure on the midfielder who was allowed time and space to play the ball in behind the defence. Leao turned his marker before using his acceleration to attack the space, giving Sporting CP the lead against Juventus.
From these two games, it’s clear that Leao likes to be on the shoulder of the last defender before attacking the space, which is something he does extremely well.
Alongside exploiting the space against a high line, Leao is also capable of dropping deep, causing defences just as many problems. Even at a young age, Leao possesses movement like that of Sergio Aguero et al.
Below, Leao drops deeper but causes equally as many problems. His pace doesn’t play a factor in this role but his movement is second to none. Fainting to exploit the space between the centre-back and left-back, Leao moves in front of his marker, using his strength to hold him off before giving Sporting CP II the lead.
Dropping that little deeper allowed Rafael Barbosa to get to the byline, fizzing the ball along the ground to the near post.
Even as the No. 9 in the Sporting CP II squad, Leao likes to drop a lot deeper than what a typical goalscorer would. Here, we see him drop into midfield, linking up play between midfield and attack.
Playing the one-two, Leao dropping deeper has brought the Porto II defender with him, to close him down. As touched on before, Leao possesses great pace and so after receiving the ball and playing the one-two, he is able turn his marker and use his pace to get in behind.
A couple of frames later and Leao is charging towards the penalty area. Had the ball have been played almost instantly from Wallyson Mallmann, Leao may have bagged himself another goal.
In that same game, Leao created Sporting CP II’s second goal, returning the favour for Barbosa. The Portuguese forward used his height to take the ball down in midfield before playing a first-time ball with the outside of his foot into the space behind Porto’s back line.
Below, Leao has showed great movement to find himself in space before showcasing his vision with an entire half to play the ball into.
At 18, Leao has shown that he already possesses three key attributes: attacking the space, movement and link-up play, needed for a modern day forward. Long gone are the days of your physical striker that will hang around the penalty area. He’s shown that he has what it takes to drop into the space between defence and midfield and his ability to create chances for others, despite the goal threat he creates himself.
Leao is already in the Portugal U21 setup and it may not be long before Fernando Santos gives him his first international cap. With Eder getting on and Andre Silva being the only other capable forward for Portugal, Leao may get his chance sooner than anticipated.
With 6 goals in 11 games in the Ledman Liga Pro and 5 in 6 in the UEFA Youth League, and an impressive game against FC Porto to follow, it’s clear just to see why Manchester City are willing to pay in upwards of £22 million. A year in the first team at Sporting CP in 2018 may just see a breakout campaign with several clubs keeping a watchful eye.