For the past few games, Stephan El Shaarawy's performances have been overshadowed by those of his teammates. Last week, Roma scraped a 3-2 win away to Frosinone, and the man of the moment was Edin Dzeko for bagging a brace. That same week on Monday, they beat Bologna 2-1, and the laurel crown was bestowed on goalkeeper Robin Olsen for his miraculous saves.
Eschewing the protagonist role seems to be a marker of El Shaarawy's style. That does not prevent him from being instrumental in a variety of ways: against Bologna he won a penalty, which was then converted by Aleksandar Kolarov, and against Frosinone he set up two of the Lupi's three goals, firing off the ball that was tapped in by Lorenzo Pellegrini and practically gift-wrapping an assist for Dzeko.
Perhaps surprisingly, for someone who produces so many goals for his teammates, El Shaarawy remains this season's most prolific goal-scorer in Serie A for his club, with eight goals to his name alongside his four assists. This is even more impressive if you consider that 'Il Faraone' missed out six straight games in December due to injury, and has been used sparingly since then. In total, he has played only 1270 minutes out of the team's 2325.
Many, myself very much included, have been guilty of underestimating or discounting this apparently unexceptional 26-year-old. He is, after all, fast without being the fastest and strong without being the strongest, so he seldom stands out. But it is time for us, and perhaps for Italy CT Roberto Mancini, to recognise woodpecker-haired Stephan as perhaps the finest Italian striker currently playing in the league – or at least, the most efficient.
The numbers prove it, to the extent that numbers ever prove anything. With El Shaarawy on the pitch, Roma averaged one goal every 42.6 minutes. Without him, that time-span goes up to 50.8 minutes. (There was, I should point out, some slight work of approximation in finding these figures, like rounding the average length of a match to 93 minutes). This may not seem like a big deal, but a difference of 8.2 minutes over a bracket of 90 means a leap forward of almost 10 per cent in terms of goal-per-minute efficiency.
To put that in perspective, Roma are currently scoring 1.96 goals per game, which makes for the third-best attack in Serie A. Were they always scoring as much as they do when Il Faraone is on the pitch, that figure would spring to 2.18, leapfrogging both Juventus (2.17) and Atalanta (2.04) to reach the top spot. This is not a fair comparison, of course, as the other teams would also bolster their stats if you could shear off the minutes played without their most efficient player, but it does give a sense of his impact.
I am not entirely sure why a footballer of such substantial quality should have been spared the plaudits he deserves, especially in a world as hungry for heroes as that of modern football. His history of inconsistency and injuries must have played a part in it, but I hazard it may also be a cultural thing: Stephan El Shaarawy may be strong, but he does not play like an Italian, and so he is not as readily appreciated by Italian audiences.
Italian forwards are usually down-to-earth poachers who do little more than bang it in or else airy fantasisti, whose game is counter-intuitive and graceful. The Giallorosso fits neither of these categories. He is more of a supporting striker than a poacher, and his game is pragmatic to an extreme.
El Shaarawy rarely shoots from outside the box and rarely keeps the ball very long. Yet his shots are almost always on target, and when he has the ball, he usually does something productive with it. He doesn't have outstanding vision and could never pull off a long ball 'alla Totti', but throw the sphere his way inside the box, and he will reliably pinball an assist back onto the closest teammate. He seldom staggers his audiences, but he rarely himself staggers.
Most impressive of all are his off-the-ball runs. The reason Roma's attack becomes so much more efficient with him on the pitch has to do with his ability to select and attack those spaces where he will pose the greatest threat. Combined with an acceleration which looks like something bred in the Premier League, El Shaarawy boasts an uncanny ability to unravel organised defensive lines.
This may not make him an especially dazzling player to watch, and he is certainly not the fantasista type. He will never leave half a team in his trail as he scorches his way to goal like a Roberto Baggio or a Valentino Mazzola could do. But the sheer efficiency of his plays, both in individual and collective terms, is so far off the charts that Mancini should consider making him a staple of his Azzurri the way that Eusebio Di Francesco did for his Giallorossi.
It stands to reason that Dzeko's heroics will always engender more drama than El Shaarawy's plays, even if they are not as dependable. And the absurd, wonderful explosion of the 'Teen Titan' Nicolò Zaniolo has already booked out all the headlines. Even so, if I had to name Roma's best player of the season so far, I think I'd give that prize to Il Faraone, for more than just his goals.
For all his past inconsistency, this is his best and most impactful season to date. And at 26 years old, there is reason to believe he is done hesitating at the borders of his sunlight and is about to enter a radiant, beautiful prime. The reign of the Italian who does not play like an Italian might only have just begun.