With nearly four years of experience writing about Serie A, I like to think my understanding of the game, and all its intricacies, has grown considerably. I'm by no means an expert, of course, but I think I can hold my own in most calcio discussions, but god help me, I still love shiny things. It's the reason I was so (correctly) enamored with Erik Lamela, it's why I (incorrectly) bought into the Juan Iturbe hype, it's why I would have welcomed Alessio Cerci back to Roma with open arms, and it's why I fought so hard to restrain my emotions when Stephan El Shaarawy first became connected to the Giallorossi last year.
You see, despite all the Xs and Os, all the statistical analysis, and all the well thought out plans, sometimes you just need that player; the one whose athleticism, creativity and inspiration can win matches when tactics fall flat. And yes, when it comes to the Iturbes, the Cercis and Gervinhos of the world, more often than not, the frustration outweighs the elation, but with Roma's newest shiny toy gun, El Shaarawy, I'm here to tell you, there is a foundation underneath that flash.
SES: Space & Location
Through his first five league appearances with Roma, El Shaarawy has four goals, one assist, completed 83% of his passes and has placed an impressive 60% of his shots on target. But beyond the black and white figures on the stat sheet, it's the manner in which he's making effective use of the space on the pitch to create and sustain an attack down the left flank, bringing some much needed balance to Spalletti's attack.
Since we're only four matches into El Shaarawy's tenure, we'll focus much of this analysis on yesterday's match, the best of an already impressive lot of performances for SES in a Roma shirt. First up, let's take a quick look at the space El Shaarawy nominally occupies on the pitch, then we'll contrast that with how he integrates himself into an attacking move.
No mystery to this one, El Shaarawy's bread is buttered on the left flank, but you can see just how deep he comes back to pick up the ball, allowing his teammates to advance, thereby making it tougher for defenders to know exactly when and where to apply pressure. Oddly enough, against Empoli, SES only attempted one dribble, which brings us to our next point; El Shaarawy is fully integrated (and one could say integral to) within Roma's attack; he doesn't merely seek out the ball so he can dribble to his heart's content.
For an example of this, look no further than his work with Lucas Digne in yesterday's match:
This may be more a testament to how utterly dominant Roma was, but just look at how advanced the entire team was, Antonio Rüdiger and Ervin Zukanovic, Roma's most removed players, weren't more than 18 yards away from the midfield, but notice how intertwined Digne and El Shaarawy were. Practically holding hands, they made the left flank their own, teaming up for 16 passes, working quick one-twos that pushed and pulled the Empoli defense, affording SES enough time and space to cut inside, while giving Digne a path up the pitch.
But that's what you expect when your full back and wide attackers are in sync; they're supposed to overlap, to work in tandem and to keep the defense honest. It's a simple concept, but one that was lacking for much of this season. Now, using El Shaarawy's attempts and goals as an example, let's look at how SES operates within a broader attacking movement.
SES: Synchronicity & Movement
First up, his 5th minute stunner:
While this wasn't the most intricate of buildups, there's beauty in its simplicity, no? Starting with Digne's throw in, Roma reversed course and switched fields, and in a matter of seven passes found El Shaarawy some 25-30 yards out from goal, who had the presence of mind to cut it and get in position to take that shot--which was, again, a byproduct of the threat posed by the interplay between El Shaarawy and Digne (among others)--and what a shot it was.
See for yourself
The funny and frustrating thing about football is that sometimes the misses are as memorable as the goals. Even without climaxing, there's beauty in the buildup. Dig this:
I mean, just look at that!--seven different players were involved in this movement, which was unfortunately turned away by Lukasz Skorupski. Diego Perotti, Lucas Digne, Mohamed Salah, Maicon, Iago Falque and even Seydou Keita made a mess of the Empoli defense, mixing and matching, making tidy little passes in the Empoli area as they pleased.
But pay special attention to the movement between Salah, Perotti and El Shaarawy; that's the pearl in this oyster. Perotti starts the movement off way out on the right flank, and then 20 seconds later, and on the complete opposite side of the pitch, he's laying it off to El Shaarawy for the attempt on goal, but the real genius of this move lies in between those twenty ticks of the clock.
After receiving the ball from Perotti, Salah pings it back to Miralem Pjanic, who steadies the play, holding the ball for a full three seconds, giving Perotti and Salah enough to time to advance to the other side, where they then team up with Digne, Falque and El Shaarawy, pulling off five passes and two layoffs in a matter of 15 seconds and all within a, what, 20-yard radius?
El Shaarawy in particular did a wonderful job of making himself available for Keita's pass about 25 yards from goal then immediately it giving it to Salah at the edge of the area. From there, SES tracked the flow of the play, as the ball swung back out to the left towards Falque and eventually Digne.
Rather than calling for the ball, SES moved parallel with them, tracing Salah's movement after he (Salah) received a pass from Digne, putting himself in perfect position to receive the layoff from Perotti. Even as I'm writing this, I'm getting dizzy, I can't even imagine what it was like for Empoli to try and defend this move.
Although this move didn't end in a goal, it is exhibit A in Luciano Spalletti's tactical notebook. The interplay between Perotti, Salah and El Shaarawy is mesmerizing; you simply don't know where any one of them will be at any single moment; they're all just so skilled on the ball and so adept at attacking in tight spaces, yet they're so deadly in the open field, there may not be one single way to slow them down--If the execution is there and if they're receiving proper support from the fullbacks and the midfielders, the game is theirs for the taking.
We're running a bit long on words now, so we'll close it with El Shaarawy's second goal, which was a divine example of what Digne, Salah and El Shaarawy can do to a defense when they're given room to run. Although the goal relied on a bit of luck, the buildup was superb, starting with a give and go between Digne and El Shaarawy, who then found Salah, who then forced the keeper's hand. Their passing, movement and sheer speed spread the Empoli defense so thin that no one was there to cover El Shaarawy as the ball caromed of Skorupski's hands, leading to the easy rebounded goal.
Whether it was due to his trademarked hair or simply his quick feet, Stephan El Shaarawy was always a flashy player, but as we're beginning to see, there is a layer of substance behind that sizzle. El Shaarawy's movement, particularly in tight spaces, his speed and intelligence are crucial to Roma's strikerless formation.
Sometimes the shiny toy is also the best toy.
heatmaps via squawka.com, passing/goal graphics via asroma.com