There was a time when the story of Stephan El Shaarawy at Roma seemed like it would be separated into two distinctly different chapters.
After scoring 40 goals from 139 games, his first spell with the club was – although not without some lower points – an overall success. The impact he made initially after his January 2016 arrival was outstanding, and after a couple of mixed years, he was also one of the few brighter sparks of the 2018-19 season.
Thus, when Roma sold him at the end of that campaign – one of the best of his career – it was a questionable decision. Of course, they could not compete with the wages that were on offer in China, where he would end up with Shanghai Shenhua, but he seemed reluctant to leave and should have been a building block for a new era for the club.
After their paths diverged, though, Roma and El Shaarawy both encountered difficulties. The club have not qualified for the Champions League in any of the years since his transfer away, while he did not set the Chinese Super League alight.
The idea of a return to Roma was always in the back of his mind, and it shifted firmly to the forefront late in the summer 2020 transfer window. Ultimately, though, he missed out, and would have to wait without playing until January 2021 to return.
By then, Roma’s decision to re-sign him was arguably more questionable than their original decision to sell. They were bringing back a player who was not just out of form, but hadn’t even played for a few months. There would be no repeat of instant impact after his second January transfer to Roma.
The reasons were understandable, but it was frustrating to see a player who had once been such a spark for the club looking a shadow of his former self. The idea of a second exit after just a few months was briefly speculated and it wasn’t too dramatic, especially given that it could have allowed Roma to make a quick profit on a less effective player they had re-acquired for free.
But El Shaarawy had a point to prove. Again, the summer of 2021 marked the transition into a new era for Roma – and this time Il Faraone would be part of it.Embed from Getty Images
Earning his place in Jose Mourinho’s plans, El Shaarawy set about working to get back to his old levels. He got a crucial pre-season under his belt to restore his fitness, but was still not a starter when the season came around. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, despite previous clashes with Mourinho at Manchester United, was the preferred starter on the left wing.
In recent weeks, which have been challenging for the club as a whole, a shift has been developing in that hierarchy. Over the formative months of the season, El Shaarawy has been patient for his opportunities, which have often come in the Europa Conference League.
Every now and then, there has been a glimmer of his true self. All that he has needed has been a run of games to develop those flashes into some consistency (in a way that opposite backup winger Carles Perez has been unable to across his Roma career, in comparison).
Such a spell may just be around the corner for El Shaarawy, who is being proactive in making himself important to Roma again.
The team has not been functioning properly in recent weeks, but El Shaarawy has been one of the cogs who hasn’t been too affected. In Roma’s final game of October, a 2-1 loss to Milan, it was he who scored the consolation against his former side.
Then, a few days later, the ex-Monaco man was on the scoresheet again, cutting in and finishing against Bodo/Glimt in the Europa Conference League. Later in the game, he also went close with an instinctive aerial effort, emerging as one of the few sources of inspiration in another disjointed display from the team.
On both occasions, this wasn’t a silhouette of El Shaarawy, or someone sleepwalking in his body. This was the real thing, even if just for short moments again. These were signs of the player Roma shouldn’t have sold and the one they were right after all to bring back.
There is a long way to go yet, but the 29-year-old can gain confidence from his recent performances as he aims to become a protagonist. Mkhitaryan’s own loss of form – and some frustrating displays from Nicolo Zaniolo on the other flank – may well open a door for him to develop his chances further.
Mourinho may have commented recently that he only feels he has a squad of 12 or 13 players. But even if El Shaarawy isn’t quite a member of the regular starting lineup, he is certainly still in the small group that his coach trusts and can get a tune out of.
This season could well be decisive for what remains of his career – his contract expires in 2023, when he will be in his 30s – but even though things aren’t all going to plan around him, somewhat like in the last year of his first spell, he is starting to lift his head higher again.
El Shaarawy is starting to look more like himself – and the real version of that player is someone who can be a useful man for Roma.