After missing almost all of last season with a foot injury, Stephan El Shaarawy is finally fit and getting him to reprise his stellar form from the 2012-13 campaign will be massive for Filippo Inzaghi.
Inzaghi, who is set to open his managerial account on August 31 when Milan kick off the season against Lazio, will have a luxury that neither of the Rossoneri's embattled managers had last term: a healthy El Shaarawy.
The 21-year-old is just a year removed from a 16-goal season that saw him carry Milan through the first half of that 2012-13 campaign, before Mario Balotelli played savior post-January following his transfer from Manchester City.
Balotelli and El Shaarawy didn't fully gel in that first season together—the latter scored just one goal after the Balotelli signing—and Inzaghi will be tasked with cultivating a prolific partnership between the Italian internationals.
Pippo is expected to institute the same 4-3-3 he used with the Primavera, and the left wing and centre-forward positions are expected to be minded by El Shaarawy and Balotelli, respectively.
Left wing is the position El Shaarawy almost exclusively played during his 16-goal year, per WhoScored.com, so positional familiarity should surely help the youngster find his footing.
The major difference—or what Milanisti should hope is the major difference—between Massimiliano Allegri's 4-3-3 and Inzaghi's permutation is El Shaarawy's defensive responsibility.
In an effort to provide cover for the defensively inept Kevin Constant, El Shaarawy was forced to continually track back, limiting his ability to affect the offense while subsequently compounding his fatigue.
It was blatantly obvious at the end of the 2012-13 term that he had nothing more to give, as the defensive workload considerably taxed Il Faraone. Additionally, Milan were largely without left-wing depth that season, forcing El Shaarawy to play in 45 Serie A and Champions League matches.
Milan still don't have ample depth at the wing positions, but M'Baye Niang is a year more experienced and has shown flashes this preseason, while—according to Football-Italia (h/t Sky Sport Italia)—the club recently lodged a bid for QPR's Adel Taarabt, who impressed on loan last year.
Rotating the squad and keeping El Shaarawy fresh is more feasible with a quality backup, and Taarabt would be just that.
The Colombian international flies up and down the left flank, and while he can become over-infatuated with attacking, he has the speed to get back and defend his position.
Left-back has been a problem area for some time, and Armero gives Milan a solid option that doesn't involve wrong-footing the promising Mattia De Sciglio or fielding a player who isn't Milan quality, like the aforementioned Kevin Constant.
Armero's willingness to provide attacking width pays dividends in another area as well—for all of El Shaarawy's skill, he isn't that good at dribbling at defenders. He doesn't possess elite speed nor has he consistently exhibited enough individual skill to be left on an island and be relied upon to beat his marker.
That's a problem considering taking on defenders is of paramount importance for inverted wingers. The ability to dip the shoulder, sell an incisive run and take the ball out wide, or turn the defender and cut inside is a prerequisite, and while he isn't incapable, El Shaarawy must improve this aspect of his game.
When Armero is bombing forward, El Shaarawy can tuck inside to support Balotelli, without sacrificing width. Such a strategy would magnify the Balotelli-El Shaarawy partnership as the duo would be much closer together, facilitating interplay where both players can excel given their superb ball control.
When this happens, Inzaghi can elect to do what Pep Guardiola made famous at Barcelona: Drop a midfielder back—presumably Nigel De Jong as he's the best defensively—between the centre-backs to play like a sweeper, mimicking a three-man back line.
That also allows for either Ignazio Abate or De Sciglio to get up the pitch and overwhelm the opposition by throwing attacker after attacker, and is a great way to control the flow of play.
Riccardo Montolivo will be out for an extended period of time, and by virtue of him being the best possession-playing midfielder, the club will need to find another way to dictate the match; rampant full-back running is a proven commodity.
Let's face it, El Shaarawy and Balotelli need to be on the same page in order for the Diavolo attack to be at its best. Most of their struggles together came because of Allegri's system and wasn't indicative of what that partnership could be.
Allowing the two to play closer together, using a system like the one described, should immediately pay dividends as both players have the passing acumen to exploit space left for the other to run into.
Additionally, either player will take defensive attention off the other. Balotelli will surely be keyed on because of his reputation and because defenders just love getting the mercurial striker worked up, but an on-form El Shaarawy provides a similar danger.
Not only is it vital to get El Shaarawy back on track for the player himself, Milan is an appreciably better team when its No. 92 is in the starting XI.
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