For SBNation's ‘What If Week’ we will be looking at one of the most intriguing partnerships in AC Milan's recent history that never came to fruition due to injury troubles. Two of the most promising attackers of this generation in Brazil's Alexandre Pato and Italy's Stephan el Shaarawy both had their time at the San Siro prematurely ended due to troubles with fitness and an impatient environment of the dying Berlusconi era. The two players were marvels on the pitch when they were fit but what kept them sidelined? And what if we got the chance to see them play together?
For the Brazilian wonder kid, the years between 2011 and 2013 must have been excruciatingly difficult given his incredible explosion onto the scene culminating in a Scudetto victory in 2010/11. The 18 year old striker was a phenom who hit the ground running scoring in his opening game against Napoli in 2008 announcing himself on the main stage. He was privileged enough to play with some incredible Brazilians at the club and build strong chemistry with Kaka in 2008/09, with Ronaldinho in 2009/10, with Robinho in 2010/11 and most significantly partner with Ronaldo in 2007/08 albeit for a short period. Pato was best known for his speed and his agility as well as his clinical finishing. He was versatile enough to rotate across the attacking positions to accommodate for the breadth of experienced attackers that he was allowed to play alongside.
In his first three and a half seasons at the club, Pato absolutely tore it up scoring freely and becoming a quintessential part of the team despite the intense competition. Pato was in double figures in the league in his first three complete seasons at the club and was responsible for some memorable Champions League goals notably the 24 second shocker against Barcelona where he bolted through the entire team to easily slot past Valdes. Pato had immense talent at such a young age that most of his teammates and coaches saw him as the next generational talent. He was so good that despite his injuries, he is in the top 20 of all time Milan goalscorers with 63 goals in 150 appearances. His influence in Milan’s attack at the time demonstrated his adaptability and his sheer brilliance to partner up and thrive in varied environments.
The injuries began in February 2010 with a hamstring problem that would reduce him to just 14 more games in that season followed by a tough 2011/12 where he had issues with his thigh that led to to spend more time on the treatment table than the pitch. The problem was largely noted to be a growth spurt between the ages of 18 and 23 where the striker added nine kilograms to his frame and eight centimetres. The work regiment at Milan meant he added too much muscle too quickly and this negatively affected his posture making him more vulnerable to injuries. This could have been undone but Pato was not supported well physically and psychologically by the Milan lab and coaching staff at the time. The result was recurrent injuries that reduced the goal machine to playing just 24 games in his final two seasons averaging just 50.5 minutes per game.
Stephan el Shaarawy
The case of Il Faraone is one of the toughest losses for Milan I have experienced in my lifetime, the young winger was a truly exceptional and exciting talent who was mismanaged and run into the ground. He was slowly integrated into the first team coming in as a super sub in the 2011/12 season but stepped up to the plate and carried the team the following year in the shadow of the loss of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to PSG. The 20 year old shouldered the attacking burden of Allegri’s hollow shell of a squad with his incredible run of form that got him 14 goals in the first half of the season as he and Balotelli dragged Milan to a third place finish in the league. He performed so well that he leapt to the fore of Italy’s national team for the Euros but would struggle with injuries.
El Shaarawy was noticeable from the 2011/12 season where he featured often of the bench and got to learn from the likes of Ibrahimovic and Robinho alternating between the wing and a second striker. He didn’t score much but he showed glimpses of his stunning pace and his sleek movement on the ball. But in his second season, he was called upon to lead the line in the absence of any attacking leaders in the squad, his goals kept Milan afloat in what would have otherwise been a disastrous drop. El Shaarawy’s work ethic is what stood out above all alongside his humility, he scored the goals and led the team but played his role constantly dropping back to defend and play Allegri’s anti-football method. He built up an amazing highlight reel in just half a season with some screamers against Napoli and Lazio but most memorable will be his goal against Sampdoria after his long time out with injury where he curled in and wept at scoring after over a season.
El Shaarawy’s injuries were a result of being overworked by Allegri at the time, he was using his blistering pace to run up and down the pitch to lead the attack and contribute to the defence and it took a toll on him. It began with a torn muscle fibre but the struggles came with the metatarsal fracture and when it reoccurred against Livorno it kept him out for half a year as he underwent foot surgery and needed to recover. The same fracture would reoccur for a third time in January 2015 and sideline him for another six months but would hurt his confidence and show him to be too prone to injury. In El Shaarawy’s case, the devastation of the first prolonged injury seemed to hurt his confidence significantly and held him back for years until his time at AS Roma where he would recover his pace and swagger as well as his goal scoring ability.
The cases of Pato and El Shaarawy are somewhat similar and the two overlapped injuries and peaks at Milan. They even played together as starters for a short period in 2012/13 but was they had in common above all was mismanagement from Massimiliano Allegri and his staff. Although, Pato’s injuries were a result of his growth spurt it was his overworking and the lack of understanding around his needs that held him back and allowed him to become vulnerable. In El Shaarawy’s case, Allegri overly relied on him and put too much pressure on his body too soon leading to a burnout and resulting injuries as the player was not built to undertake so much physically as he was expected to in the first half of 2012/13. Both players had huge ceilings and were rightly compared to some of the best players in the world when they were performing and it was extremely difficult for Milan fans to see both of them leave Pato in 2013 to Corinthians and El Shaarawy in 2016 to Roma.
But this leads to the more important question, What If Milan Got A Prime Pato-El Shaarawy Partnership?
Perhaps this disservice is to the players and the club who missed out of potentially one of the best attacking partnerships in recent years. A combination of Pato and El Shaarawy at their peaks as a striker and second striker or a striker and winger respectively could have been devastating. Imagine the pace on the counter attacks and the dual threat in close encounters with defenders. The duo were both technically gifted and they were great and breaking through the lines and cleanly slotting past the keeper. Milan has struggled for attacking partnerships and no. 9s since the 2011/12 season and many have come and gone but struggled to convince the fans. Between them, they have 90 goals and 31 assists in 252 games whilst facing injury issues. Imagine them together, performing at a good ratre. What if Il Faraone and the Duck were heading the attack and combining their pace and dribbling, what a sight that would be. They could have complemented each other in a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3 and built up a truly marvellous chemistry that would terrify defenders but alas that’s one of the biggest if’s of the past decade for Milan. Realistically speaking, the years between 2012 and 2014 could have gone very differently if they pair were healthy and leading the line.
If a fit Pato and El Shaarawy led Milan's attack, how many goals would they score in a season?
This poll is closed
Less than 10
10 - 20
20 - 30