After starting the 2012-13 season in incredible form, Stephan El Shaarawy dropped off considerably after last year's winter break.
This time last year, Stephan El Shaarawy was the talk of Serie A. A mere 20 years old by the time Milan reached the winter break, the Egyptian-born forward had made his international debut, scored his first international goal and buried 14 balls into the back of the net.
His efforts up front, which included three multi-goal games, had helped pull AC Milan back from their awful start to the 2012-13 season and put them on the road to eventually gaining a Champions League place.
But once the winter break was over, the man the fans called Il Farone started to sputter. From the restart of the season to the end of the campaign, El Shaarawy only scored three goals in all competitions, the last coming in the Derby della Madonnina in March.
Why did Milan's phenom go from such a high to such a low? There isn't really one answer, but it's rather a combination of factors.
One major issue is that Milan manager Massimiliano Allegri didn't always use him in the best way. El Shaarawy's best position is as a left winger. His skill set is most properly described as Cristiano Ronaldo-like. His excellent first touch gives him the ability to cut inside from the left and either snap off a shot or lay off to a supporting teammate on his right and is what makes him so effective when he's on form.
Allegri did use El Shaarawy on the left side of a three-man forward line but also often used him as a second striker on a two-man line as well. El Shaarawy can play in this position in a pinch, but it takes away much of his best attributes.
If Allegri settled on a 4-3-3 formation, things could be better for El Sha. As it is, Allegri's tactics have too often neutralized his players' best skills.
Another potential reason for his decline—put forward mainly by Milan fans—is the arrival of Mario Balotelli on the last day of the 2013 winter transfer window.
There is no one theory regarding this element. Some—most of whom have a dim view of Balotelli's antics on and off the field—cite a selfishness on Balotelli's part or an incompatibility in their games. Others point to a gradual shift in tactics away from El Shaarawy and toward a red-hot Super Mario.
There is definitely an element of truth in the latter scenario, especially when El Shaarawy's form began to dip. The former is less likely. There is an admitted disparity between Balotelli and his teammates in shots per game—WhoScored.com stats show he has taken nearly three times as many per game as his nearest teammate this season. But in this writer's estimation, that is not due to any selfishness beyond that which a good striker requires. Without solid attacking options at his side, Balotelli has had to shoulder a larger load this season.
In the end, Balotelli's impact on El Shaarawy is likely limited. If anything, Balotelli should have made him better. After the sale of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, pressure was heaped on El Shaarawy to lead Milan's line. Balotelli's arrival should have alleviated that pressure.
Further discrediting the anti-Balotelli faction in this argument is the evident chemistry the two had begun to develop in their brief time together with the national team, which should have only grown when training with each other every day.
A slight tactical shift toward the striker was the obvious result of his hot streak last season, but that's all.
In the end, the most important reason is likely simple fatigue that built up into the injury-plagued start he has endured in the current season.
El Shaarawy was only 19 years old at the start of the 2012-13 season. He had never had to endure a full season as a regular starter at the top-flight level, let alone one that involved European competition. With the responsibility of leading the line put on his shoulders, he ended up playing in 37 games in the league (starting 34), eight in the Champions League (starting six) and one in the Coppa Italia (a start).
That kind of workload would grind down any player that young, but the effect is practically double on a player who works as hard as El Shaarawy. To see him track back deep into his own left wing to help defend was common and commendable—but also probably unsustainable.
What's to blame for El Shaarawy's drop in form?
For El Shaarawy to fade down the stretch should, quite frankly, have been expected given his age and workload.
What he needed was an offseason's rest while his body reset itself and adapted to what it took to play a full season at Milan's level. That's why it was both surprising and distressing that Cesare Prandelli dragged him to Brazil for the Confederations Cup instead of letting him rest after his form tanked. That extra work is what probably led to the injuries that have kept El Shaarawy off the field for much of the first half of the year.
You could talk about Allegri's positioning of him and the arrival of Mario Balotelli as possible explanations for why Stephan El Shaarawy's form dropped off so dramatically. But when it boils down, the rigors of El Sha's first full top-flight season wore him down. He wasn't given adequate rest during the season and wasn't given the time to recuperate this offseason.
It may not be until next year that we get to see what a fully rested and healed Faraone can do again for Milan.