Friday, 24 October 2014

How do you solve a problem like Balotelli?

Brendan Rodgers always knew that Mario Balotelli would be trouble when he signed him.

The enigmatic Italian maverick arrived with a far from favourable reputation. Seen as workshy on the field and stupid off it, Balotelli’s only redeeming attribute seemed to be the moments of utter brilliance that he occasionally produces.

As a result, it was always going to be a gamble when Rodgers decided to spend £16 million to recruit him in the summer transfer window. The Liverpool manager took that punt because his hands were tied. With the likes of Falcao and Cavani turning down a move to Merseyside, it looked as if he would be stuck with just the injury prone Daniel Sturridge and ageing Rickie Lambert in attack, ignoring Fabio Borini, who Rodgers wanted to offload.

When faced with choosing whether to plough on with only two senior strikers or take a bet on his ability to get the best out of Balotelli, Rodgers went for the latter. Many are now questioning the wisdom of that choice.

The latest scandal engulfing the number 45 about swapping shirts with Pepe when Liverpool were 3-0 down at home to Real Madrid- dubbed ‘shirtgate’ by some members of the press- is merely the tip of the iceberg. It was a stupid and insulting act that summed up Balotelli’s attitude towards the famous Red shirt and the supporters.

The infamous shirt swap
Throughout the course of what has been a frustrating and difficult campaign so far, Balotelli has been missing, despite featuring in all but the opening two League fixtures. His only significant contribution to the team was the opening goal against Ludogorets. Apart from that, Balotelli has done precious little to prove that his manager was right to take the risk of signing him from AC Milan.

The statistics tell a damning story of Mario Balotelli’s Liverpool career to date. One goal in ten appearances yields an embarrassingly low goals-to-games ratio, and his chance conversion rate is even worse. No player in Europe’s top five leagues has had more shots than Balotelli’s 26 without scoring a goal this season.

A slow start to life on Merseyside can be forgiven. After all, none of Liverpool’s summer signings have really hit the ground running, with Adam Lallana arguably the brightest of what is turning out to be a fairly underwhelming bunch so far. Moreover, Balotelli has unexpectedly had to shoulder the burden of being the side’s main striker in the continued absence of England international Daniel Sturridge through injury.

However, what is totally unacceptable, both to the supporters and boss Brendan Rodgers, is the seemingly complete and utter absence of any semblance of work rate and effort from Mad Mario. Suffering a goal drought is OK; even the best players endure rough patches when they are not at their best. Moping around the pitch refusing to run for your teammates and looking entirely disinterested is another matter altogether.

Moody Mario’s attitude is that of a school child who thinks that he does not need to work hard just because every so often he conjures up a bit of magic out on the school playing fields. It’s embarrassing, both for him and the club, and completely contradicts the ethos of teamwork and togetherness that Rodgers has worked so hard to build up during his time in the Anfield hot seat.

Unfortunately, Rodgers’ options regarding what he can do with Balotelli are severely limited. His poor attitude is a deep seated issue that great managers such as Roberto Mancini and Jose Mourinho wrestled with, ultimately failing to find a solution and thus offloading the Italian striker.

If Rodgers is going to work his man-management magic and transform the 24-year old into a mature footballer, it will inevitably take time and patience, but every time Balotelli puts in another non-performance the boss’ and the supporters’ patience will understandably wear increasingly thin.

Balotelli looks dismayed against QPR
Rodgers might have decided that Balotelli has no future at Anfield and choose to cut his losses and sell him as soon as possible, but I suspect there will be few buyers willing to take him on in the January transfer window, at least not at a price that would avoid the club suffering a financial loss on their £16 million investment. Furthermore, selling Balotelli would mean that the Reds would have to enter the market for another striker, and quality strikers come at a substantial premium at the midpoint of the season. They are also frequently ineligible for European competitions.

I don’t expect Rodgers to admit defeat in his attempts to reform Balotelli’s character and salvage his Liverpool career just yet. It would severely damage his reputation as an excellent man-manager; plus he relishes a challenge, and Balotelli is a challenge and a half! However, at the same time Rodgers cannot allow his authority to be questioned and simply must discipline Balotelli.

The best way to do that is through dropping him to the substitutes’ bench for a few games and giving Rickie Lambert a run in the side, perhaps alongside Raheem Sterling, who was utilised in the central striker role during the second half against Madrid and played in the position extensively during his youth.

It might even be worthwhile giving Fabio Borini a chance to revitalise his Liverpool career; he certainly appears to have more desire to succeed at Anfield than Balotelli and, at 23, is young enough to potentially lead the Liverpool line for years to come, unlike Lambert, who is just seeing out his twilight years at his boyhood club.

Hopefully, Balotelli would respond to this wake-up call by actually showing more willing out on the pitch and replicating the effort that the likes of Lambert, Borini and Sterling put in. At the very least, it would teach him that he cannot just do whatever he wants without any consequences for his actions and demonstrate that he is not bigger than the team.

Whatever Balotelli believes, it’s not all about him. The sooner he learns that lesson, the better for everyone.


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