Recently here on Bleacher Report, we have discussed why staying at Milan is vital to the evolution of Mario Balotelli in an article that explored why the Rossoneri are the perfect club to nurture the player and his fragile temperament. So much has been written about him as a troubled individual, as a difficult-to-reach young man and as a high-profile representative of a multicultural Italy.
The discussion over how and why Cesare Prandelli or Roberto Mancini have been able to connect to the 23-year-old in a way other coaches have not rumbles on incessantly. His background, career to date and attitude have been analysed in greater detail than almost any other player in the game today. Grass allergies, car wrecks, pet pigs, thrown darts, incidents with fireworks, visits to women's prisons and the inability to pull on a bib unaided have been the subject of countless TV shows and column inches.
But now, as the Clarence Seedorf era gets underway at San Siro, what of Mario Balotelli the player? How and when the recently retired Dutchman can tap into Balotelli’s incredible potential will be essential to improving Milan’s dire form thus far in 2013-14.
Balotelli’s on-field career can perhaps be separated into two halves, with Euro 2012 acting as the easily identifiable midway marker. Before that tournament, he had been a bit-part player at Inter, who made just 49 starts in all competitions for the Serie A giants, and was at best an impact substitute at Manchester City.
He had also registered just a single international goal in his first eight appearances for Italy, despite those caps coming against struggling nations like Romania, Poland and the Faroe Islands. Prandelli had used him in a supporting role, playing him off strikers such as Alessandro Matri, Dani Osvaldo and Amauri, much like he deferred to Emmanuel Adebayor or Edin Dzeko at Manchester City.
At the European Championships however, the Azzurri coach would recognise that to bring the best from Balotelli, he would need to make him the focal point of the team. With Italy starting out in a 3-5-2 to combat Spain’s incredible midfield before switching to 4-3-1-2, the striker would lead the line wonderfully, netting three goals including two in an immense semi-final victory over Germany.
While that display felt like a coming-of-age performance from Balotelli, he would endure a tumultuous start to the 2012-13 season upon returning to Manchester. The inevitable clash of personalities with the equally temperamental Mancini boiled over into a training-ground bust-up, with the coach giving an interview to the BBC in April which would prove prophetic.
“If you played with me 10 years ago I would give you every day maybe one punch in your head,” the former Sampdoria star indirectly told his player, and their differences would prove irreconcilable. That would lead to Milan vice president Adriano Galliani completing yet another great value deal for his club, signing the player for €20 million in the January transfer window.
His role at Manchester City, like that of many other players under Mancini, was difficult to define. Many times, the starting XI would be a haphazard selection of great individual players, with the coach struggling to impart any identity on the team during his four-year tenure. That the arrival of Manuel Pellegrini has appeared to have the same effect as releasing the handbrake on a car is no coincidence.
Yet for all the criticisms of Massimiliano Allegri at Milan, he would not repeat Mancini’s mistakes with Balotelli. With the Rossoneri stuttering prior to the striker’s arrival, there would be no experimenting or over-elaboration. He would play up front, the coach following Prandelli’s lead and making him the focal point of the side.
Allegri’s decisive move would be rewarded by the most sustained and consistent run of form of the player’s club career thus far. In 12 starts he would net 12 goals, carrying Milan almost single-handedly up the table and lifting them into third place.
That guaranteed them Champions League football once again, and the financial benefits of that arguably repaid his transfer fee almost instantly. It has also seen the player voted as Serie A's best striker by his peers at Monday's Gran Gala del Calcio award ceremony.
According to stats site WhoScored.com, Balotelli also created 1.5 clear chances for his Milan team-mates. Their failure to convert a single one of those 20 opportunities became a damning indictment of the lack of quality around him. However, the same site shows he has never truly been a creator, recording just 10 assists in all competitions since 2010 at an average of one every 15 appearances, so this issue is clearly not unique to Milan.
The same player who had struggled for club and country was making history. A ruthless and clinical striker was born, with two coaches rewarded for their faith in the player "Super Mario" was always capable of being. The above infographic, also created by the WhoScored website on September 27, 2013, shows just how much impact Balotelli has when playing alone in attack, rubbishing the notion he needs another striker alongside him to be at his best.
His form continued through the summer, helping Italy to third place at the Confederations Cup in Brazil. It was yet more evidence of his maturation as a player, with the group stage win over Mexico highlighting just how decisive he can be when given the right situation. Four shot attempts in the opening 15 minutes indicated an eagerness to settle the fixture, while his effort without the ball showed a tactical awareness he rarely receives credit for.
His varied positioning and movement in that particular match demonstrated a maturity and intelligence to his play, and that has been carried over into the new season. Despite Milan struggling—they were in 13th place when Allegri was relieved of his duties—Balotelli has continued to thrive, registering a team-high nine league goals thus far.
While the chances he is creating have dropped—down to 0.9 per game this term compared to 1.5 last season according to WhoScored.com—he has registered three assists already, a total higher than in the previous three campaigns combined. His dribbling is also hugely improved since arriving from Manchester, with the Squawka.com graphic below showing just how effective he has been in one-on-one situations.
Averaging 2.6 completed dribbles per game in Serie A, only two players—Alessandro Diamanti of Bologna and Catania’s Pablo Barrientos—are fouled more regularly than Balotelli, testament to the way he has frustrated and tormented opponents this season.
It is here that he is often most deadly too. His well-publicised perfection from the penalty spot may have been spoiled by Pepe Reina and Napoli, but Balotelli's excellence at dead-ball situations is still a deadly part of his arsenal, as he proved again this past weekend. Of his 21 Serie A goals for Milan, nine have come from the penalty spot, with a further four coming from free kicks.
Meanwhile, Seedorf has made a clear tactical shift since his arrival, showing none of the indecision which plagued Allegri’s time in charge. Where his predecessor alternated between numerous formations and tactical approaches behind Balotelli, the new coach has implemented a 4-2-3-1 shape which looks like the perfect system for the other players at his disposal.
There are obviously still a number of issues to be ironed out. The team is notably missing Ignazio Abate and Mattia De Sciglio at full-back to provide the best possible defence for the Rossoneri, while they are in need of at least one quality central defender and an upgrade at goalkeeper.
Between Nigel De Jong, Riccardo Montolivo, Michael Essien, Bryan Cristante and Andrea Poli, Seedorf has a wealth of midfield options to tailor his selection to any given opposition. The formation will also suit Keisuke Honda and Stephan El Shaarawy—as discussed here—but it undoubtedly fits Balotelli's characteristics perfectly too.
He has found the back of the net four times in four games since Allegri was sacked and was the star of the show as they saw off Hellas Verona last weekend. Scoring the only goal of the game from a penalty, Balotelli picked the Gialloblu defence apart, popping up all across the pitch and never allowing the opposition defenders to rest. His constant movement as he searched for the ball is shown in the heat map above, courtesy of the Squawka website.
His ability to move in different ways makes him almost impossible to mark, and he proved that in this match. He received numerous short passes into his feet in the space between the Hellas defence and midfield when the back four sat deep, only to run in behind them and collect balls sent over the top when they pressed forward.
As the above graphic—courtesy of FourFourTwo.com—highlights, he did not just stand around in the middle of the pitch waiting for the ball, he worked all across the front to wear out his opponents and create space for others. It sounds simple, but not many centre-forwards are outstanding at both aspects, and each is essential to the success of Seedorf’s system.
Balotelli is a versatile forward, able to play as a skillful link man or take advantage of the fact he stands 6'3” (1.89 m) tall and is able to bully opponents in a way very few strikers can. That allows his coaches to tailor their approach to suit the opposition without needing to change personnel, much in the way his former team-mate Zlatan Ibrahimovic does.
That his all-round display against Hellas was merely a confirmation of what we have seen over the last 18 months is a frightening prospect for the rest of Europe to consider. With Milan and Italy looking to him to deliver silverware, he has 41 goals and eight assists in 81 games for the two sides since Euro 2012 began. Mario Balotelli has become a player Prandelli and Seedorf can depend on, and one defenders should truly fear.