Midway through Liverpool’s 3-1 defeat to Manchester City, Mario Balotelli left his seat at the Etihad Stadium, the joke being that he realised what a mistake he had made and was on his way back to Italy.
Brendan Rodgers’ side was somewhat below par against the Premier League champions, but its performance demonstrated why it needs Balotelli. It could be seen as an unnecessary risk for a team looking to maintain its upward trajectory, but look a little harder, and his arrival at Anfield makes perfect sense.
The Premier League return of football’s wildest wild child was certainly unexpected. Just a few weeks ago, Rodgers was “categorical” in stating that Balotelli would not end up at Liverpool for the new season, as per Paul Hirt of The Independent. Yet something changed in the mind of Rodgers.
With every passing week of the transfer window, it became clearer that Liverpool had replaced Suarez—the best striker in England, maybe even Europe—with Rickie Lambert.
The £16 million signing of Balotelli brings Liverpool’s summer spending to a total of £133 million, but the Italian is the only player to have arrived at Anfield with any kind of proven pedigree.
When asked on live television what Balotelli will bring to Liverpool, Rodgers responded, “trouble.” Indeed, there are obvious risks attached to the signing of the Italian striker.
“All my life I have given players an opportunity,” said Rodgers after the loss to City, as per Sky Sports. “He is 24 years of age, and has become a father now. He knows he has responsibility, not only to himself but to this great club.
“We will treat him no differently. He is part of our team. The market was very limited as to what we could bring in. The business was very good for us.”
Rodgers’ comments suggest that he truly believed his original statement on Balotelli; that he wouldn’t sign the striker this summer. But as efforts on luring other targets proved fruitless, the AC Milan man suddenly became a viable option.
Perhaps the narrow 2-1 win over Southampton convinced Rodgers that his side needed an extra dimension. Indeed, Liverpool were missing something in their opening league game of the season. Namely Suarez, but effectively an unpredictability.
Under Rodgers, Liverpool are a well-drilled, tactically and positionally aware outfit. But like all sides of such a nature, they need a wild card (look at Lionel Messi’s relationship with Barcelona for precedent). Balotelli will be that wild card.
The signing of Balotelli also has a tactical purpose, with the 4-4-2 diamond that worked so well for Liverpool last season now an option for Rodgers again. It means that the 4-5-1 formation used all the way through pre-season could be ditched.
At City, Balotelli was often used on the left side by Roberto Mancini, yet Balotelli has led the line for Italy at World Cups and European Championships. Tactical flexibility is a prerequisite at Liverpool, and in that sense, Balotelli fits in well.
With Suarez’s exit, there wasn’t just a gaping hole in Liverpool’s attack but an imbalance in the equilibrium of madness at Anfield. If Suarez was a lightning storm in his time with the Reds, Balotelli arrives as a hurricane. But will he blow away the opposition or his own team?
In the current marketplace, £16 million for a player of Balotelli’s ability represents something of a bargain. Consider that Shane Long joined Southampton for £12 million just a few weeks ago, and the signing of the Italian looks somewhat shrewd.
But this is Balotelli’s last chance. Should he fail to fulfill his undeniable promise at Liverpool, his stock will tumble, maybe to never recover again. And yet there is something exciting about this signing for the Reds; the kind of exhilaration that comes with a gamble.
Brian Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor used to get the most out of the transfer market by placing faith in flawed characters. If you know their issues, you know how to fix them. And Balotelli’s problems are well-documented.
There is risk attached to every signing. The man Balotelli has replaced at Liverpool was also a flawed character, but Suarez always found a way to harness the power of his innate chaos. Balotelli must do the same thing.