Before we get into the particulars of this year’s number one U-23 prospect, we need to have a word or two about the word ‘prospect’. In order to understand the method behind our madness, I’ll refer you back to the genesis of this countdown, which started solely out of my love of baseball and my desire to implement that same sort of youth/prospect countdown into calcio.
The problem, as I soon found out, was that there is infinitely more information—in the form of bios, stats, videos, projections, comparisons etc—for minor league baseball than there is for Italian Primavera prospects. In order to present a cogent, thoughtful and hopefully entertaining piece, compromises had to be made. So, as much as I would have loved to have a top ten list solely comprised of U-19s, in terms of quality content, it simply wasn’t feasible; there just isn’t enough valid information on these kids.
So, what was initially conceived as a countdown of strictly adolescents and those who had yet to make their pro debut, was morphed into a generic U-23 countdown with one parameter: the player had to be 23-years-old or younger prior to opening day. Why 23 you might ask? Simple, if it was good enough to serve as a barometer for the Olympics, it was good enough for CdT.
In the future (possibly as soon as next year) we’ll probably institute some sort of appearances cap for players on this list, so when you see players like Alisson or Antonio Rüdiger on this list, players who have been pros for several seasons and are approaching their 24th birthday, please keep in mind all we just discussed, and more importantly, recognize what tremendous talent it takes to already have made your mark by your 23rd birthday.
This preamble went on longer than I planned, so without further delay, I present to you the cream of Roma’s 23 and under crop, Stephan El Shaarawy.
Number One: Stephan El Shaarawy
Previous Club: Monaco
Current Club: Roma
Future Comparison: Neymar, Kaka with less playmaking
Who is He?
The man with the most famous haircut in Serie A needs little introduction, but he nevertheless has an interesting back story. Born in Savona to an Egyptian father and a Swiss-Italian mother, El Shaarawy is about as cosmopolitan as they come. El Shaarawy’s path towards Rome started when he was just 14, when he enlisted in Genoa’s youth ranks.
SES would become the fourth youngest Serie A debutant ever, when he made his debut for Genoa at all of 16 years and 55 days old. El Shaarawy wasn’t long for the Griffins, however, as he was summarily loaned out to Padova for further seasoning. After scoring 9 goals in 29 Serie B appearances, El Shaarawy’s career really took off.
In 2011, at all over 19-years-old, El Shaarawy made a big money move to AC Milan (back when that meant something) and didn’t shrink on the larger stage. After a relatively non-descript debut season, SES broke through in a major way in 2012, scoring 16 league goals and drawing rave reviews the world over. His path to stardom was free and clear, but it wasn’t meant to be, at least not that easily.
El Shaarawy’s Milan decline is well documented, but the short story is injuries and Mario Balotelli making him surplus to requirements. After a wasted half-season in Monaco, El Shaarawy burst back onto the Italian scene with Roma last spring, making his permanent move this summer.
What Can He Do?
El Shaarawy is fast. El Shaarawy is nimble. El Shaarawy is clinical. El Shaarawy is creative. El Shaarawy is awesome. El Shaarawy uses a lot of hair care product.
Superlatives aside, El Shaarawy is an athletic, versatile and productive player, one who can play out wide on the left, alone up top and even as an attacking midfielder. While SES doesn’t necessarily rack up the assists, his quick touch and ability to operate in tight spaces enables him to succeed in an uptempo attack.
Simply put, his sheer speed, agility and nose for goal make him a threat anywhere along the attacking line. Additionally, he has a hell of a powerful shot, so on the rare instances when he can’t skirt around defenders, he can still threaten the keeper from deep.
El Shaarawy isn’t a prototypical forward or even an all around #10 type of player, but there is very little he can’t do with the ball at his feet, and in Roma and Luciano Spalletti, he has found the ideal incubator for his talents.
What Can He Become?
Given how long he’s been on the Italian scene, we tend to forget how young he actually is—still two months shy of his 24th birthday—but he has ample room to grow into the player many predicted when he burst upon the scene with Milan four years ago.
None other than Milan legend and Serie A’s fourth all-time leading scorer Jose Altafini has compared El Shaarawy to Neymar and Lionel Messi due to their low centers of gravity and touch on the ball, while another Milan legend, Andriy Shevchenko, saw a bit of himself in SES when he debuted with Milan. It’s tough to nail down an exact comparison because he looks like a winger, yet his actual role is more akin to a number nine, but he’s a tweener in the absolute best sense of the word, making efficient and effective use of this amalgam of skills.
Despite all his skill and speed, El Shaarawy’s effectiveness and greatness will be measured by the amount of goals he scores. And thankfully for Roma, his Milan and Monaco swoon didn’t blunt those skills.
In 16 appearances for Roma last spring, El Shaarawy scored eight goals and while he didn’t create a ton of chances, he still completed 81% of his passes. Given his role in the offense, he’ll probably never chip in more than a handful of assists, but just watch how he operates in Spalletti’s quick and synchronous passing scheme and you’ll see why he’s tailor made for this Roma team.
But back to the goals for a second. El Shaarawy’s eight goals came on the back of an extremely accurate (60%) and efficient shot (23% conversion), all of which tallied up for 0.60 goals per 90 minutes, good for 7th in the league. And all of that came after essentially two wasted seasons in which he only made 24 appearances scoring a measly three goals. El Shaarawy’s 2015-2016 season was testament to the power of a change of scenery.
At only 23-years-old, El Shaarawy still has ample room to grow, and while his playmaking numbers will ultimately depend on his supporting cast and role within the offense, the efficiency with which he threatened the goal this past season is a promising indicator for the future.
If all goes well, El Shaarawy at his peak could be a consistent 15-20 goal scorer, one who delights with his speed, creativity and highlight worthy goals. And the mere fact that we’ve seen glimpses of this, both at Milan and Roma, is precisely what gave him the slight nod over Gerson in this countdown.
In so many ways, El Shaarawy is Roma’s dream come true; a budding star with a mega watt smile and a signature style. El Shaarawy’s electricity not only wins matches, but it puts asses in the seats.
A club like Roma will always have to gamble on the transfer market, they simply can’t afford to spend top dollar on every position, so taking risks on reclamation projects like El Shaarawy is often the best and only option.
But make no mistake, this gamble is going to pay off handsomely.