Last month saw a detailed analysis of why Milan need to get Stephan El Shaarawy back on track—which you can catch up with here—but he has still yet to return to action.
Out since early December, the striker was sidelined “for around ten weeks” according to a club statement (h/t UEFA.com) after undergoing foot surgery. That time table should see him return to training soon and could have a major impact on the fortunes of the Rossoneri.
What follows is a list of things he needs to do to find his best form after regaining fitness and—with Milan currently sitting in 11th place—Clarence Seedorf needs him desperately.
Since taking charge of the club, Clarence Seedorf has implemented a 4-2-3-1 formation, dispensing with the constant alterations seen under Massimiliano Allegri. Where his predecessor never seemed to give the players an established framework, the Dutchman has laid down a concise tactical blueprint.
With Keisuke Honda and Kaka already occupying two of the slots behind Mario Balotelli, the glaring need for a left-sided attacking player is blatantly apparent. That role in the trident is arguably El Shaarawy’s ideal position, and he must learn how Seedorf wants him to play there.
It sounds simple, but a player whose name is regularly on the score sheet is unlikely to be on the bench very often. The striker began last season at a blistering pace, and that contribution has been sorely missed in 2013-14.
“We've missed Stephan El Shaarawy who scored 14 goals in the first round of last year,” Milan Vice President Adriano Galliani told Sky Italia last month (h/t Yahoo Sport). That total helped the Rossoneri boast Serie A’s fifth-best attack last term, while this year no fewer than eight sides have notched more goals than the San Siro outfit.
Clearly a better prospect going forward in comparison with Valter Birsa or Adel Taarabt—two men who have played in El Shaarawy’s natural role recently—it is his effort without the ball that has also been missed.
The following graphic—courtesy of stats site Squawka—highlights just how much work the 21-year-old does defensively. In 2012-13, he averaged 1.1 tackles and 1.0 interceptions per game, protecting the fullback behind him extremely effectively.
So far this season, Taarabt has registered 0.3 tackles and 0.1 interceptions while Birsa has contributed figures of 1.2 and 0.1 in those respective categories. Neither offers the assurances El Shaarawy does, giving him a clear advantage as Seedorf selects his line-up.
The most surprising aspect to Milan’s resurgence in the second half of last season was that they shot up the table so quickly despite El Shaarawy barely contributing. After netting 17 times in all competitions before the winter break, he registered just three more when play resumed, the last of which came in February’s derby against Inter.
That coincided with the arrival of Mario Balotelli in late January, the former Manchester City man notched 12 goals in 13 appearances, carrying Milan to the Champions League berth they so desperately craved.
If both men can find the back of the net consistently in tandem, Seedorf will have one of the league’s most deadly duos on his hands.
The goal-scoring contribution of Mario Balotelli mentioned on the previous slide saw him slip into the role Zlatan Ibrahimovic previously occupied at Milan. Like the Swedish striker, “Super Mario” was isolated in attack and the other 10 players were there to simply get him the ball.
While that ability was often effective, it was ultimately doomed to failure and Clarence Seedorf will understand that all too well. With players like Bryan Cristante, Andrea Poli and Riccardo Montolivo occupying the two midfield slots, he has already built a more creative central setup than Massimiliano Allegri ever seemed capable of.
Keisuke Honda and Kaka can only add to that and, with El Shaarawy completing the trident, free-flowing football may finally return to San Siro.