Analysing Mario Balotelli's Start to Life at Liverpool

Matt LadsonFeatured ColumnistOctober 11, 2014

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"This is not the Mario Balotelli show," promised Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers upon the Italian's £16 million arrival shortly before the end of the summer transfer window.

"He has a lot of work to do and the star of this team will always be the team," explained Rodgers, as per BBC Sport.

Six weeks and eight appearances later, two from the bench, has it become the Balotelli show? And how has the 24-year-old settled into life at Liverpool?

 

First Impressions

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 31:  Mario Balotelli shares a joke with Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling of Liverpool during the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at White Hart Lane on August 31, 2014 in London, England.
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

The initial signs were good, perhaps even very good. Balotelli's debut at Tottenham Hotspur at the end of August saw him line up alongside Daniel Sturridge as Rodgers' side blew Spurs away, using the midfield diamond shape to allow the two forwards to work as a partnership.

The link-up play between the No. 15 and No. 45 showed signs of promise, and there were no signs of any problems with Balotelli's work rate.

 

Loss of Sturridge

The loss of Sturridge to injury, once again suffered on Roy Hodgson's watch on international duty, hit Liverpool hard, and it's easy to forget how much it has affected Balotelli, too.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 13:  Mario Balotelli of Liverpool is tackled from Alan Hutton of Aston Villa during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Aston Villa at Anfield on September 13, 2014 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Alex
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Instead of being integrated into the side alongside the highest-scoring player last season still playing in the Premier League, Balotelli has been starting every game in a completely new-look Liverpool attack.

The cohesive attacking unit of last season has completely gone, and Balotelli, Lazar Markovic, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling have struggled to click.

Right now, it looks like Balotelli will be much more at home alongside a forward such as Sturridge—whose mobility in the final third will benefit his partner and midfield—rather than as a lone forward within a three-man attack.

 

Balotelli—and Rodgers

It's as a lone forward that Balotelli has struggled since Sturridge's injury—which is contrary to what we may have expected. It's this position where the former Manchester City forward impressed for Italy at the World Cup, leading the line with his power, pace, stature and his confident play.

Take this example of Balotelli against England:

FIFATV

He's on the line of the last defender, six seconds later he was heading the ball past Joe Hart. We've not seen enough of that from Balotelli in a Liverpool shirt (not just the goalscoring but the playing up against the opposing centre-back).

Here's an example from the Merseyside derby, which was highlighted on Match of the Day where they praised Ballotelli:

BBC Match of the Day

They highlighted his work in bringing others into play, showing a new side to his game. Admirable, yes, but look at the lack of any threat Liverpool have from where the centre-forward should be. Too often it's been a complete snooze for opposing centre-backs as Balotelli has dropped deep or wide to collect the ball and looked to show a new side to his game.

Of course, the question here is whether Rodgers has asked him to do this or if the player himself is doing this as he seeks to prove people wrong on his questionable work ethic.

It's that work ethic that supporters and media have highlighted positively in the past month, but should we really be celebrating something that is surely the minimum requirement for a footballer?

Is the challenge of showing how hard he can work actually taking away Balotelli's best attributes? There's certainly an argument to say it is.

What Liverpool need is Balotelli to actually be leading the line, making life hard for the centre-back, getting in behind and making effective runs. We haven't seen this anywhere near enough.

Too often with the ball in midfield, he's been static up front, and numerous times he's missed a chance for a near-post run which would have seen him with a good opportunity.

Balotelli leading Italy's attack
Balotelli leading Italy's attackWarren Little/Getty Images

Elsewhere, we've seen Balotelli's complete lack of match intelligence; shooting wildly from 30 yards rather than holding the ball up; refusing those near-post runs; even attempting to tackle the 'keeper on a goal kick.

To get the best from Balotelli, Liverpool need to use him to his strengths, not ask him to prove he can work hard. You wouldn't invite Paul McCartney to your dinner party, then ask him to wash the dishes to prove himself.

Now we have Rodgers telling how "In terms of goals he needs to improve, it is as simple as that," as per The Guardian. The manager praising Balotelli's behaviour and work rate in the process.

Isn't it all a bit condescending? "Well done for trying hard and behaving"—it's the way you'd expect a youth coach to talk about a 10-year-old kid.

 

Sturridge's Return

Sturridge's return from injury next week against Queens Park Rangers should see Rodgers return to the midfield diamond, especially with Joe Allen expected to be back fit, too, and therefore Balotelli alongside the prolific English forward.

If Rodgers insists that Balotelli needs to add the work rate to his game and drop deep to influence play, then Sturridge's arrival should mean that when this happens, Liverpool still have a presence up front.

Sturridge's movement is something Liverpool have lacked—that and his clinical finishing, as opposed to Balotelli's extremely poor shots-to-goal ratio.

Hopefully then we'll start to see the player Rodgers described—in early August, as per The Mirror—as "a big talent," describing Balotelli as such:

He's got all the qualities. He's 6ft 3ins, he's quick, his touch is terrific and he can score goals. He went back to Italy to play and he's still so young.

If his focus is right, his concentration is right and he leads the lifestyle of a top player then he can play for any team in the world.

For that to happen, we need both Balotelli and Rodgers to up their game.