The exodus of an entire generation of players at Milan was something not even the most ardent of fans expected to be dealt with ease but the start that Milan have had in the third season under Massimiliano Allegri is something even the most pessimist of the lot did not see coming. A meagrely six points in the first five games of the season, that too with already having been beaten twice at home speaks greatly about the extent to which this squad has been dismantled and fans already seem to have given up hopes on any piece of silverware for the season – in fact a European spot at the end of the season too seems ambitious at the moment.
The defensive lapses at Milan are no secret and sadly they do not produce an Alessandro Nesta every day. It is anybody’s guess how long will it take before Milan boast of another defence of the quality fans have been used to watching but the bigger and more important question to address here is of attacking prowess that seems to be dwindling. The replacement for Ibrahimovic was something that was to be founded in the transfer window but that clearly has not happened.
Ibrahimovic was much more than a goal scorer to Allegri as he was the chief creative spark around which many players during those two seasons excelled. It was Ibra’s brilliance with the ball and his impeccable positional sense in the final third that let people like Nocerino and Boateng overachieve in comparison to their actual potential – it is no surprise that their form has been abysmal ever since the start of the current season. Amidst the clear dearth of creativity and the consequent scarcity of goals that Milan are experiencing, there is an emergence of a certain Stephan El Shaarawy and his performance in the last two games played has allowed the fans to hope once again out of this season, which has otherwise been absolutely listless.
El Shaarawy has been an automatic selection for Milan since Pato has been ruled out with injury and is yet to feature in a single league game. In his second season for Milan, he has already become a regular fixture; albeit it must be noted that Milan are not oozing with quality forwards at the moment. He did not receive many starts last season and mainly filled in for Pato, Ibrahimovic, Cassano or Robinho during the limited opportunities presented his way but this season the story is completely different.
Even with a fully fit squad available at Allegri’s disposal, El Shaarawy’s importance can no longer be undermined as he seems to be the only source of creativity in this roster at the moment. Of the forwards available to Allegri, Pazzini is a classic poacher while Robinho is the one who could link up the midfield with the attack with his relentless runs but his poor finishing skills and indecisiveness on the ball inside the box are major hindrances to his game. Bojan is yet to develop a complete grasp of the Italian game and it looks unlikely for him to have a real impact on Milan’s game any time soon.
The only name in the attack department that the oppositions might fear is Alexandre Pato but the Brazilian arrives on the pitch to take charge of the action with the same frequency as that of Halley’s Comet. Pato is definitely a player who will walk into any team in Europe but sadly Milan can no longer bank on him being fit and turn the fortunes for the team. Even when Pato is available to start, he is not the one to create chances for his teammates. The biggest attribute of Pato’s game is his pace with which he outruns the defenders and changes the course of the game within moments.
However, as far as adding a creative dimension to the game goes, Milan need a player who drops deep enough to connect with the midfield, is good on the ball even when covered by a number of opposition players and is able to create space for the centre forward providing him a great opportunity to score. Stephan El Shaarawy is certainly that man and that has been seen clearly in the games played so far this season. He has been operating from the left flank and has contributed much more than what a player is traditionally expected to do from the wings.
Pazzini lacks the quality to have a greater influence on the build-up but that is more than made up with the intelligence that El Shaarawy displays in the final third. With his bursting runs from the wings against Cagliari, he was easily able to get past a number of defenders and create chances for players in a more advanced position. Post the introduction of Robinho, El Shaarawy was deployed on the other wing and yet he was equally effective.
Throwing light on his performance statistically, El Shaarawy has been extremely instrumental to the chances that Milan have created so far, though they seldom have been converted into anything worthwhile. With three goals to his name in the five games he has played, El Shaarawy has averaged 1.4 key passes per game which speaks greatly of a player who is often targeted by the opposition defenders for being the only creative outlet available to Milan. However, for his average position on the field being majorly in the final third, the number of passes that he accumulates per game is fairly low but the accuracy in his passes ensure that he consistently supplies balls to the players in the central attacking zones.
The tactical switch that has seen Allegri shift to 4-3-3 of late has seen Milan play with more fluidity since considerable width has been added to the final third. The 4-3-1-2 was extremely narrow in shape and significantly lacked the threat from flanks that could press the opposition. The present formation provides the required width that keeps the opposition full backs in good check and with the inclusion of both Abate and De Sciglio on each flank, the overlapping with the wide forwards will be pretty seamless. De Sciglio in particular, if continues to start from left, should form a very potent combination on the left flank with El Shaarawy.
Once Pato returns to the fore, naturally Pazzini will have to make way for him and Robinho would preferably operate from the left. That effectively means El Shaarawy will occupy the Right Forward slot where Bojan Krkic can provide a quality backup. Another option is to switch to 4-2-3-1 with Montolivo and De Jong forming a narrow two man midfield while El Shaarawy can slot right behind Pato in the central attacking midfielder’s role who doubles up as a second striker. Pato will relish at playing as the lone man upfront and this formation provides a good opportunity for his best to be extracted. The only drawback for this formation is it offers no clear role for Nocerino and Boateng.
As of now, Allegri is expected to continue with 4-3-3 for a while unless things go horribly wrong and for this shape to succeed, El Shaarawy is an integral component of the system. Creativity is something that is severely lacking in the current roster and it is clearly visible that El Shaarawy is the only answer to the problems Milan are facing. How soon are Milan able to find the right path back again remains to be seen but as things stand, El Shaarawy has certainly made fans wonder whether a new star is already on the rise at San Siro.