Mario Balotelli’s signing by Liverpool has sparked a predictable polarising of opinion. On the one hand, there is his undeniable talent, and his relatively low fee. On the other, his erratic behaviour and frequently poor attitude have always hindered a player that former manager Roberto Mancini believed could be as good as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, per Soccerlens.
However, looking back over his short yet eventful career, it's not hard to see why he's never settled. The majority of his club career has come under two managers—Mancini at Inter and Manchester City and Jose Mourinho, again at Inter—as well as playing under three different permanent coaches during his one full season at AC Milan.
Mourinho, well known for his tough-love style of management, is fiercely protective of those playing under him. Once the cord had been cut, however, he had no hesitation in branding Balotelli “unmanageable, ”per The Daily Mail. He also has a favourite anecdote about his time with the striker, recalling how he once spent the entirety of his half-time team talk imploring Balotelli to not pick up a second booking, only for the striker to do so in the 46th minute.
Mancini then re-signed the player he had briefly coached at Inter for Manchester City. Despite flashes of brilliance, the relationship that was at one stage described by Balotelli as paternal, per Fox Sports, eventually collapsed in a memorable training-ground brawl between the pair.
Just like Mourinho, Mancini certainly had pivotal moments in his dealings with his fellow Italian. One incident saw the manager haul Balotelli off in a pre-season friendly in disgust after he had squandered a chance when through on goal by backheeling the ball.
This moment had a parallel on Sunday during Balotelli’s debut for his new side. After sending an attempt toward an unguarded net from almost 40 yards, Reds manager Brendan Rodgers responded not with a cacophony of criticism, but with an encouraging grin. It won’t be something that Balotelli is particularly used to, and it may well prove to be the perfect tonic to help him finally hit the heady heights which he is capable of.
Rodgers has the advantage of having dealt with such a personality before, with the player that Balotelli is replacing, Luis Suarez. As venerated as the Uruguayan was, there was always the lesser-seen side of his talent. For every audacious pass or goal, there was another attempt that didn't come off. Rodgers will know more than anyone that in Balotelli, he has a player with a similar penchant for the spectacular and the downsides that come with such a proclivity.
Of course, Rodgers will have to put his foot down at times—it's hard to imagine that Balotelli wouldn't take some liberties if given free rein. However, that already looks like it won't be the case:
It isn’t just Rodgers' less critical, more encouraging style that sets Liverpool’s gamble on Balotelli up to succeed—his role in the squad will be equally important. At Inter, he was an explosive wild card. He rarely received the playing time he needed to develop due to competition from the likes of Diego Milito and Samuel Eto'o.
At City, he was merely another striker among a number of stars, and was again often asked to play a supporting role. With opportunities at such a premium at both clubs, it's not hard to see why his need to prove himself quickly dissolved into frustration on the occasions he was given an opportunity.
The role he was asked the play at Milan was the polar opposite. Rather than being merely an option, he had the expectations of a huge club with a poor squad foisted upon his shoulders. Once again, it's not difficult to see why this was not an atmosphere conducive to productivity for the Italian, particularly when playing under two novice managers in Clarence Seedorf and Filippo Inzaghi.
The one squad in which he has largely kept his head down and produced what he is capable of is in the national team. The Azzurri have given him a role that is equidistant between what he experienced at Inter and City and the pressure of Milan. He is important, as the team’s main striker, but is not their most crucial player nor the one who his teammates look to for leadership—the evergreen Andrea Pirlo and captain Gianluigi Buffon, respectively.
This is similar to the position he’ll find himself in at Anfield. While he faces the unenviable task of replacing Suarez’s invention and goals, he will have help from strike partner Daniel Sturridge, and he can rest easy knowing that Steven Gerrard will be the heartbeat of the team.
Rodgers has overcome doubts about his own abilities brought about by his reputation and he will help Balotelli do the same. Whether the Italian marksman can replicate what Suarez brought to the team remains to be seen; however, teamed with Liverpool and Rodgers, he could prove even more important in the long term.