For the second year in a row, Roma have sold their best player of the season.
Two years ago it was goalkeeper Alisson Becker who bailed Roma out on several occasions, but after his departure for Liverpool, it was an outfield player who stepped out of the shadows to become the main man: Stephan El Shaarawy.
El Shaarawy’s previous two-and-a-half seasons at Roma had seen him become the symbol of inconsistency, as he flattered to deceive by scoring eight goals in his first 17 games after joining in January 2016. In the pair of seasons that followed, though, he struggled to match that output, often rotating with Diego Perotti for the left wing spot.
However, to say that El Shaarawy is still inconsistent would be a misplaced judgement. In 2018-19, he finally shed that tag and became a game-changer again.
Perhaps several injuries to Perotti helped him, as regular, uninterrupted playing time gave him the chance to build up a rhythm. Or maybe it was all on merit and he would have thrived anyway. Whatever the reason, it seemed the 26-year-old was finally growing into his potential.
There was one problem, however. With his contract expiring in June 2020, his club had to decide whether to renew his deal, sell him, or risk losing him for free next summer.
El Shaarawy made it abundantly clear to the press on several occasions that he wanted to renew. He spoke of how he was thriving with more responsibility and felt at home with Roma. However, on the other side, there was little but silence.
Not helped by the sudden departure of sporting director Monchi in March, after the Spaniard took exception to the club’s decision to veto him and sack coach Eusebio Di Francesco, the topic of retaining El Shaarawy slipped off the radar somewhat. Even when his match-winning goals kept coming – many of them long-distance spectaculars, like the one he scored against Empoli in Claudio Ranieri’s first game back in charge, and his strike in the draw with Inter which was voted the Giallorossi Yorkshire goal of the season – no member of the hierarchy took the kind of responsibility he was showing on the pitch to make his renewal not just a priority, but a matter of urgency.
Perhaps there is someone who has slipped the net of criticism but shares a portion of the blame here: Monchi’s interim successor Ricky Massara. A central part of the club’s decision-making processes over the past few years, Massara was placed in temporary charge of Roma’s sporting operations in the wake of Monchi’s exit. But what did he actually do?
When an interim coach comes in, they are expected to have an impact and change a few things. Ranieri succeeded at that task, improving Roma defensively by making Antonio Mirante his first choice keeper and bringing the best out of Federico Fazio and Steven Nzonzi. So why weren’t the same expectations bestowed upon an interim sporting director? Massara should have seen that it was fundamental to the club to keep hold of El Shaarawy, but perhaps the new Milan man’s motives lied elsewhere.
Another player left in the dark by Massara and those above him was Nicolo Zaniolo, who rightly or wrongly appealed for an improved contract as his reputation grew. But as his father Igor confirmed, nobody from the club even contacted them after Monchi left.
The midfielder looks set to leave now as a result, with a move to childhood favourites Juventus beckoning. That will be a blow for Roma – one that could albeit be softened by the inclusion of Juve players in the deal – but it’s not as large a dent as El Shaarawy’s exit.
Of course Roma couldn’t compete with the salary offer placed on the table by Shanghai Shenhua (he will earn €13m a year), but El Shaarawy made his desire to stay at Roma known long before that Chinese offer even materialised. Roma shouldn’t have had to compete; their position over one of their key players should have been made clear, and a decision made much earlier.
It’s a situation Gianluca Petrachi will have to be careful to avoid in future. The new sporting director can’t really be blamed for El Shaarawy’s exit – it is the fault of those who came before him – but his acknowledgement that he only wants players who show a strong desire to be at Roma was a misreading of the winger’s situation.
Roma will miss Stephan El Shaarawy next year. He was becoming more and more a protagonist, and had the potential to grow into a leader. But they will have to look elsewhere now for someone to match his contributions. In a season where very few players reached acceptable standards, it seems a travesty that the best one is being sent away.