“We want to build a great squad with young players,” proclaimed President Silvio Berlusconi following the sales of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva along with the exodus of veterans last summer. It was a complete change in direction and policy for Milan, a club that for so long had welcomed the world’s best players through its doors. No longer was this going to happen.
Understandably, the new ‘youth policy’ had many worried about the club’s future. A mock funeral was even staged by a group of fans outside the club’s headquarters in Via Turati. The fans’ concerns were justified as the season started. Results were disastrous and following Milan’s defeat away to Udinese – their third loss in just five games – they were left sitting just above the relegation zone. But amid the calamity in Udine, there was a silver lining in the shape of Stephan El Shaarawy.
The then 19-year-old scored with a wonderful strike and though it was not enough to save his team that day, it was a boon to his confidence and the first of many to come. In the following round he scored a brace against Cagliari to deliver Milan a priceless three points. The goals then really started to flow; one against Parma, the winner against Genoa, a late equaliser in Palermo, another double this time against Napoli, a winner against Atalanta and a crucial Derby equaliser against Inter.
El Shaarawy finished the season with 16 goals, many of them important ones. While the goals did dry up in the second half of the term after Mario Balotelli arrived, there was still no doubt about it - il faraone saved Milan’s season. Just where they would have been without him is a scenario too scary to ponder. The young striker showed that Milan really could remain competitive with a younger and less experienced team. That there was real reason after all to trust in youth.
Over the summer El Shaarawy was deservingly given a new contract and his wages were doubled. Yet, as a result of his impressive displays last season inevitably potential suitors began to emerge. Manchester City were hot on his tail as were Real Madrid. But after a meeting with Adriano Galliani, the club and player decided their future was together.
Milan’s best player last season, along with Balotelli, the two forwards have come to represent the ‘new’ Milan – one built around young players that are really capable of forming part of a “great” side. Yet, recent decisions by the club seem bound to marginalise the young Pharaoh’s role.
Following a summit involving Berlusconi, Galliani and Allegri before the campaign, the decision to revert back to a 4-3-1-2 was made. While El Shaarawy has insisted, “I can play in more positions, either as an out-an-out striker or second striker”, having shone so bright and with his abilities best suited to a wide attacking role, it begged the question as to where does he fit in now?
The club’s moves in the summer transfer market do not bode well either for the young Italian. Kaka has returned and most likely he will be the automatic choice to play in behind the strikers. Alessandro Matri was snapped up too. Along with Giampaolo Pazzini and Robinho, there are four strikers who when all fit will by vying for the one spot alongside Mario Balotelli. In addition, reports have suggested that Keisuke Honda is set to arrive at the club in January.
In part due to these decisions, speculation has continued into the new season about the striker’s future. Tottenham, Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain are all reportedly interested now too. With El Shaarawy’s status as Milan’s most sellable player with a market value of over €30m, everything seems to suggest that the starlet could be on his way out.
And what a shame it would be. Not only would Milan be losing one of Italy’s most promising youngsters while continuing on with the likes of Matri and Pazzini, but it would also show that the club are not all that serious about their new youth policy and the plan to use it to once again make Milan great.
Read more from Frank Tigani @ The Divine Ponytail