The Clarence Seedorf era at Milan is well underway, and one player with the Rossoneri will perhaps be among the most interested of onlookers. While the new coach has plenty of work to do, Stephan El Shaarawy is unable to help, sidelined by a foot injury until March.
After months of speculation, the seven-time European champions were forced to issue a statement (via ESPN) insisting the player was not leaving. That his future had been brought into question was due to his poor form in the second half of last season, finding the back of the net just three times after the winter break.
While his age should be taken into consideration, in comparison to his previous form, that represents a remarkable drop-off from the 21-year-old.
Prior to that drought, he had scored 16 goals in 26 appearances, carrying Milan through the early part of the season. In a team which had lost Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Alessandro Nesta and numerous others, suddenly El Shaarawy was the star. He had become the first teenager to score for the club in Europe and seemingly had the world at his feet.
Then Mario Balotelli arrived.
While the impact of the former Manchester City star cannot be denied—after all, his 12 goals in 13 appearances lifted Milan into third place and ensured Champions League football once again—neither can his effect on his new team-mate.
However, looking at the disaster the San Siro club became under Massimiliano Allegri, it is hard to blame El Shaarawy’s form on only the player himself. All too often the ex-coach fielded players out of position and in unsuitable formations, leaving many good quality players struggling to realise their maximum potential.
Where Allegri often partnered him alongside Balotelli, his natural role in Seedorf’s new 4-2-3-1 framework would be on the left of the attacking trident, a role which suits his skill set perfectly. From there he can utilise his speed, work-rate and ability to stretch defenses to the benefit of those around him.
According to stats site WhoScored.com, 14 of his 16 Serie A goals last term came from the left flank and in clinical fashion. The same site shows he took just 48 shots, giving him an impressive on-target conversion rate of 33.3 per cent.
On the left, his natural creativity also comes into play—he had four assists in 2012-13 and created a team-high 56 scoring opportunities—as he completed 84.8 per cent of his passes and 33.3 per cent of crosses.
He is more than just an attacking threat however, working hard to track back and protect the defence on flank behind him. While his effort is hard to quantify, El Shaarawy won 34 of the 43 tackles he made last term and averaged two defensive actions (blocks, interceptions or clearances) per game according to Squawka.com.
His play has even inspired praise from former Milan star Paolo Maldini, per ESPN: "El Shaarawy has shown great class. He is a modern player because he works in both phases, attack and defence. He is proving to be a relentless goalscorer. I did not expect so much from him."
As he sits on and watches Milan during his recovery, he can do so knowing there is a perfect role for him in the team under Seedorf. Looking at Robinho in what will surely be the youngster’s spot once he regains full fitness, El Shaarawy can learn from the Brazilian’s mistakes and see how best to help the side when he returns.
He will hopefully be studying the runs, passes and habits of Keisuke Honda, Kaka and Balotelli, learning what to expect and cutting down the time it will take for the four men to gel when they are fielded together. Such a trident looks impressive, but it will take serious effort from the players and their new coach to make it work.
El Shaarawy has no doubts that he and Balotelli can thrive together. "We get along very, very well, on and off the field," El Shaarawy said in an interview with FourFourTwo last year. "I actually think he makes me better.” If Seedorf’s tactics bring the best from both men at the same time, Serie A defences will be in trouble.