Looking for a reason behind Stephan El Shaarawy’s lack of goals for Milan in recent times? Well, on this occasion, you can’t blame Mario Balotelli for that. Not yet anyway. The claim that the two players can’t co-exist is a conceivable and understandable theory to ponder, but it is far too soon to be making conclusions on a pairing that could potentially serve club and country for the next decade.
That is how highly rated the duo are and with some justification. Their individual contributions to the Diavolo at various stages this season underlines that they are the personification of talent mixed with potential. Yet it is their inability to instantly deliver goals in tandem which has raised doubts about their effectiveness in the same side.
The concern obviously stems from El Shaarawy’s goal drought which, if viewed on a purely statistical level, gives the impression that he’s somehow been affected negatively by the January capture of Super Mario from Manchester City. While Balotelli has smashed in seven goals in seven games, El Shaarawy has only scored once in the championship since Balotelli marked his Diavolo debut with a brace against Udinese.
The inconvenient truth though is that El Shaarawy was already catching his breath before Balotelli put pen to paper on his Milanese contract. The former Genoa man had, after all, only scored one goal in his five previous encounters prior to the new boy taking over the goalscoring responsibilities for the San Siro giants.
Having grabbed 16 League goals before Christmas, it was inevitable that El Shaarawy would start to struggle to ripple the net with the blistering consistency he had done. This, after all, is the 20-year-old’s first Serie A campaign where he has been guaranteed a regular starting shirt. That was going to take its toll both physically and mentally.
You also have to factor in the footballing decree that all forwards, no matter whether young or old, will go through difficult periods of scoring form. Udinese goal machine Antonio Di Natale has bagged just once in his last nine games, Edinson Cavani went six without a strike for Napoli recently, Roma’s Erik Lamela has only got three in his last 11 and Diavolo teammate Giampaolo Pazzini scored in just one of his first 10 Serie A appearances this season – albeit a hat-trick at Bologna.
If anything, the criticism and concern over El Shaarawy’s recent back-seat role simply underlines the progression made by a kid who last season only scored two goals in the top flight.
So is it wrong to say that the two can’t play in the same team? We don’t have enough sample data – games played together – to answer that with any certainty. In theory, though, they should be compatible in some way tactically given where the two are being fielded for club and country. El Shaarawy generally likes to drift in from a wide left position, while Balotelli is being used as a centre-forward.
Perhaps a more pertinent question is whether the two can give their maximum in those starting positions? That’s the key issue. El Shaarawy’s desire to cut inside means there is the danger that he and the roving Balotelli, who is not a classical centre-forward, will be asking for the ball in the same space. In order for their partnership to blossom, they will not just need to form an understanding but also a relationship. Both, ego permitting, will be required to make sacrifices to benefit the other.
“They are a pairing with great possibilities and prospective,” says Italy boss Cesare Prandelli. “But they are also very young and they are going to have to work very hard. They showed in the friendly against France that they can co-exist and we’re all curious to see how they will develop. I trust that Milan boss Massimiliano Allegri, who is a great Coach, will improve their understanding.”
It’s going to take time for that to happen and we may not see the kind of desired results Italian football wants until next season, but with a combined age of 42, time is something that Balotelli and El Shaarawy clearly have on their side.