Mario Balotelli and Why He Is Not to Blame for Liverpool’s Woes.
Some might call him mad; others will call him a genius. He’s divisive and controversial and the footballing world cannot decide if it loves Mario Balotelli or hates him. At the moment Liverpool fans are gravitating towards the latter, as their season has started far from ideally. Sitting in 5th place and practically already out of the title race with just 13 points from 8 games and with a fairly kind set of opening fixtures, Liverpool fans have every reason to feel uneasy about the progress made from a fairly busy summer. Things take a turn for the worse when the Reds take a look at the Champions League group table and realise they have taken just 3 points from a possible 9, with the only win a scrappy, lucky 2-1 victory against Bulgarian side Ludogorets Razgrad. The knives are not out quite yet at Anfield, but they are most certainly being sharpened and the gathering mob is in a heated argument over whom and what is to blame. Much of the blame is coming down upon Liverpool’s much maligned mercurial man Mario Balotelli. The form Milan man has played in 6 games so far this season, scoring just 1 goal. A poor return, no doubt about it, but is Balotelli the main reason for Liverpool’s inadequacies this season?
Square peg in a round hole
Perhaps the most overused idiom in English football this season (along with the over and incorrect use of the term ‘game management’), this statement perfectly summarises why all has not gone well for Balotelli for Liverpool this season. The reason for Balotelli’s individual failure thus far at Liverpool is that he is being given the completely wrong job to do. In modern football a players role is far more important than just his geographical position and though Balotelli has been given his preferred strikers position, he is being asked to play a role which is completely counter to what Balotelli’s best attributes are. Everyone knows what Balotelli is; he’s an out and out centre-forward, capable of playing on both the shoulder of the attacker as well as with his back to goal. Balotelli only functions as an effective advanced forward if he has space to run into behind the defence and, as a Liverpool player, he will not be afforded that luxury as opposition sides defend deep. At his best though he is a fox-in-the-box, an out and out poacher who need never drift far from the opposition’s box. He is shockingly effective in this role and when he is given good service by his midfielders he is deadly. On his head, chest, either foot, even his shoulder Balotelli is capable of producing when given a poachers role.
What Balotelli is not however is a presser or a harrier. He hasn’t enough stamina to bust a lung and press the defence across the pitch and it throws his positional sense completely out of sync. Balotelli is also not a supporting target man, or a link up player alike Rickie Lambert. Balotelli, though potent in front of goal, does not have the vision or precision in the pass to act as a link up player. This, of course, is the two roles that Brendan Rodgers has given Balotelli and shock horror, it isn’t working. Balotelli has a fantastic positional sense and a natural striker’s instinct in front of goal and his finishing ability is up with the best in the world. As a link up player and as a presser he is entirely incompetent and will not develop into this kind of player as his current strikers ability is a natural one, not manufactured. If we’re wondering who’s to blame for Balotelli’s poor form then the only candidate is Brendan Rodgers as the sheer tactical stupidity to play Balotelli in a role he is so uncomfortable with is dumbfounding.
Brendan Rodgers has done a traditional Liverpool idiocy of buying a specialist player and then playing him outside of his specialty. Balotelli is very much a one trick pony, though he does that one trick superbly, and to think he can be played in a completely different role to the one, and only one, he excels in is completely and utterly stupid. The fact is if you buy a player like Balotelli you adapt to them, you cannot expect them to adapt to you. This isn’t James Milner or another versatile utility man. This is a Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a player you accommodate because what they give you is goals. But we already knew this about Balotelli and we have always known this which means it is Rodgers fault for either failing to identify this or having the hubris to believe he can adapt Balotelli rather than just buying a readymade, role ready striker.
Rodgers has also shown his total lack of tactical versatility this season and that is almost entirely to blame for their poor Champions League form. Buy showing that he cannot adapt to a player like Balotelli Rodgers has shown that he has no second hand, no plan B to call upon and that if things aren’t going Liverpool’s way that there is no stratagem to turn it around. To expect Balotelli to adapt into a Suarez role, one of incredibly high intensity, stamina and work rate was sheer stupidity. If Rodgers fails to change Balotelli’s role in the team to one Balotelli is actually capable of playing, and playing well, then of course Mario will continue to misfire.
The English media loves Balotelli, or more specifically loves to hate him. He’s never far from the back pages, even when he has no right to be. Like Louis Van Gaal, anything about Balotelli warrants a story so the smallest details are now scrutinised and over analysed beyond belief. In the Champions League defeat to Real Madrid, whilst Liverpool were losing 3-0, Balotelli decided to swap shirts with Madrid defender Pepe. Queue thunderous uproar. You can already predict the contrived headlines; “BAD BOY BALOTELLI IN SHIRT GAFFE.” or some other mindless moronic statement. Here’s a question for you and I’m directing this to Liverpool fans. If Steven Gerrard had decided to swap shirts at half time, would there have been protestations? In fact, would it have even been noticed? I doubt it. When playing the biggest teams with the world’s best players this is not all that uncommon and the fact that this is what the furore is about shows how readily Liverpool fans are willing to sacrifice Balotelli on the altar of public opinion. If I were a Red I’d pick on the woeful defending. I wouldn’t say ‘Balotelli doesn’t try and run around hard enough.’ Of course he doesn’t. He never has. Why is anyone shocked? THIS IS BALOTELLI. IF YOU WANT SOMEONE TO RUN AROUND SIGN DIRK KUYT BACK. Pick on the fact that twice the defence tried to play out from the back and you subsequently conceded twice. Pick on the fact none of your defenders effectively closed down the best attacking force in the world. Pick on the fact that pressing as much in the midfield was moronic, as Real Madrid simply played through it with all their quality. Pick on any of these factors, the reason why Liverpool lost the game, rather than Balotelli.
This raw and obvious scapegoating has been happening the moment Liverpool’s results and performances took a turn for the worst, since injuries occurred. Liverpool played glorious attacking football last year and had one of the world’s very best strikers. This year they are tactically wanting and they cannot get that attacking football flowing, even when Balotelli doesn’t play. The media, Liverpool fans and practically the nation want Balotelli to fail, so they are spurring him to do so and putting every collective or individual Liverpool error and inadequacy at the feet of Balotelli and it is utterly undeserved.
Many spoke when Balotelli signed about the risk of bringing in such a player. They pointed to his inconsistency and to the many Balotelli-isms and incidents. First and foremost when you are Liverpool £16 million is not a risk. It is a drop in the ocean and even if the gamble doesn’t pay off they can easily afford it. Secondly, Balotelli will not single-handedly destroy this team. He does not exert so much influence both on and off the pitch that he will destroy morale, or cause devastating losses all by himself. Thirdly, Balotelli has by and large left all his on field incidents behind him and what’s left of the Balotelli-isms is mostly just amusing antics on social media. Finally the only risk Balotelli places on the team is a tactical risk, in that it may have been a risk to adapt to Balotelli’s style of play. However Rodgers is messing that up all by himself, as the Liverpool way which served them so well last season is proving ineffective and Rodgers refuses to adapt the style of play as it is.
Will it work out?
I’d like to say yes, I’d like to say that Balotelli will prove everyone wrong and be an effective Premier League striker. But realism tells me this’ll be another failed venture for Balotelli in the Premier League. Rodgers will refuse to adapt to Balotelli, or in general and as such Balotelli will find it impossible to perform. Blame from this will be slumped only at the feet of Balotelli and the pressure will grow and grow on the Italian. The pressure, as it already is doing so, will turn negative, to irrelevant and useless criticism. Balotelli will fall into a protective shell and blame everyone else, which in this instance would be more accurate then less. Eventually he will be sold off to another team, perhaps PSG or back to Italy or maybe even Spain’s upper echelons, where he will once more flourish.
So long as Rodgers refuses to take any responsibility for his sub-par man management and fails to adapt and diversify his otherwise failing tactics then the parameters do not exist in which Balotelli can be a success. Balotelli better crack out his infamous ‘Why Always Me?’ shirt because it has never been so relevant.