When it comes to the art of signing players, few did it better than Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. In the latter’s book With Clough by Taylor he explained some of the science behind it in detailing how Nottingham Forest actively sought to buy players they perceived to have personal problems.
The theory was that this meant their market value might not be in line with their ability – hence the opportunity to snare a bargain. With Liverpool securing the services of Mario Balotelli on a three-year deal for a price of £16million, it’s tempting to conclude Brendan Rodgers is also a believer.
Of course, football is not just about mere talent. It’s Balotelli’s attitude that has many doubting the wisdom of the transfer. “We are certainly losing a great player, but we gain something more in team spirit and hunger,” said AC Milan coach Pippo Inzaghi. Delicate but damning.
Inzaghi’s former international team-mate Christian Vieri wasn’t quite so equivocal in his assessment, describing the transfer as the best piece of business in Milan’s history. Closer to home, former Liverpool boss Graeme Souness has referred to the move as an “enormous gamble” by Rodgers.
“It’s a gamble I don't think he needs to take because he has a very strong group of players,” he told the Sunday Times. “The harmony looks good but he may find, like every previous manager of Balotelli, that he will spend more time talking about him, spending time with him and defending him than he will the rest of the group put together. It's a high-risk signing and I wouldn't want him.”
Ostensibly, it does seem as though Rodgers is a sucker for punishment – a view not exactly quashed by his own one-word assessment of what Balotelli will bring to Liverpool. “Trouble,” Rodgers told the Monday Night Football panel.
With Luis Suarez off the books, the Liverpool manager is taking on another project. Not so much a case of inviting trouble to his Melwood door but paying for the privilege; a peculiar example of Munchausen syndrome by proxy with Rodgers revelling in the role of full-time carer.
But this view does Rodgers a disservice. He appreciates that to take Liverpool to the next level, his responsibility is to identify world-class players at an affordable price. When it comes to the vast potential of Lazar Markovic, it’s a gamble due to a lack of evidence. When it comes to the vast potential of Balotelli, it’s a gamble due to too much evidence.
The question Rodgers will be asking is how much of the Balotelli circus represents background noise that can be ignored. Can he make the difference with a player deemed “unmanageable” by Jose Mourinho? And how much can Balotelli really scupper Liverpool’s momentum?
These are the intangibles. But when it comes to a cold analysis of the on-field evidence, there is plenty to suggest this is a player who can contribute. While Sergio Aguero was the hero and Edin Dzeko remains in favour, it is a curiosity of Manchester City’s title-winning season of 2011/12 that the soon-to-be-discarded Balotelli had the best strike rate of anyone in that campaign.
He scored 13 goals in 1325 minutes of football and bettered that in his first season with Milan, netting 12 times in Serie A in just 1145 minutes. That’s almost goal-a-game territory and was the best strike rate of any player in the country. Even in a largely underwhelming final year with the Rossoneri, Balotelli maintained a respectable level of scoring with 14 goals in 25 league appearances.
The key is extrapolation. The Italian’s career strike rate would see him net 23 goals a season if he played the full 38 games. But is that ever likely to be possible with Balotelli? This is a virtuoso performer rather than one in harmony with the orchestra. Balotelli had more shots than any player in Serie A last season despite missing 13 games. Some found the top corner. Many were ill-advised.
But there are some encouraging signs too. After assisting just one Premier League goal in his time at Manchester City – that pass to Aguero – and none in his first season with Milan, there were six of them last season including three in his final half a dozen appearances.
Time is on his side and improvement is possible. Everyone from Rodgers to the player's own agent Mino Raiola seems to accept that this is his last chance. “Either it works here or it's a bust,” Raiola told Corriere della Sera. “If it goes wrong? Mario is 24. He no longer has the excuse of his age.”
However, another way of looking at this situation is that he’s only 24 years old. That’s younger than Daniel Sturridge. Younger than Jordan Henderson. Younger than Joe Allen, and significantly younger than Adam Lallana. Balotelli will not be expected to carry Liverpool’s hopes as he did at Milan, merely to make a contribution.
“Mario played well for six or seven months, giving a decisive push for them to enter the Champions League,” added Raiola. “But then you could see he is not ready to be a leader. Will he ever be a leader? It's not mandatory that every player has to be a leader.
“Not everyone is born to be a leader and a good striker is not always a leader either. Mario needs to get this pressure off his shoulders. He must feel free to score goals and that's it. I sought out for him a team where he can be an important element without being asked to be a leader. Liverpool have Steven Gerrard. There Mario will be protected and can give his best.”
What that new role at Liverpool will involve remains a source of intrigue. There are suggestions that Inzaghi favoured a more traditional number 9 able to lead the line as well as the team, but that’s not necessarily what Rodgers requires. He has that option in Rickie Lambert. He needs someone to replicate the movement of Suarez.
Balotelli is not an obvious mimic, having faced accusations of being too static, but he does like to drift around and that could work well if others can fit around him. The touch map of his last 90 minutes of Premier League action offers hope in that it is perhaps surprisingly similar to that of Suarez’s last Liverpool appearance, suggesting a roaming role that favours the left channel.
The role is there waiting for him, the team environment is in place and he is saddled with neither a huge transfer fee nor unreasonable expectations. This is a player with the goalscoring record and the ability to more than make the transfer work. As Raiola says: “Now it’s up to him.” But when it comes to Mario Balotelli, it seems that can be the hardest part of all to get right.
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