25 August 2014

On Mario Balotelli

Liverpool's not-all-that-long-but-felt-pretty-long search for another striker is now over. After one failed medical nearly a month ago, and kicking the tires on almost every top ranked striker in FIFA 2012, Mario Balotelli is now a Liverpool player. It's gonna take a while for that to sink in, and all the baggage that entails.

Have we exhausted all the "from the crazy fire to the crazy frying pan" jokes yet? How about the "Why Always Me?" ones? Super. There's one benefit of the transfer taking all weekend to complete. Let's get on with it.

The main takeaway: Liverpool sold one shot monster this summer, so Liverpool needed a new shot monster. After Liverpool's outstanding summer business so far, it was arguably the one hole left in the squad. Depth and versatility in attack? Done and done with Lallana, Markovic, and Lambert. New fullbacks? Moreno and Manquillo. A defensive organizer? Lovren. Another high-intensity midfielder, which so desperately missed when Henderson was suspended? Emre Can. Lovren, Lallana, and Lambert all have Premier League experience; Markovic, Manquillo, and Can are all young potential ready to be molded, each less than a year older than Raheem Sterling. And now, what appears the final piece. Not Suarez's replacement, but someone who can replace a few of the many things Suarez did. High volume shooters can and will be frustrating, but they're also required in outstanding attacks.

That Liverpool looked better against Southampton's packed defense after bringing on Lambert and switching to the 4-4-2 diamond which did so well last season may have added impetus to this transfer, further demonstrating the need for another striker.

Here's how Liverpool's squad now seemingly fits into the 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 diamond which Rodgers has preferred.


It's worth noting that Balotelli infrequently lined up on the left while at Manchester City, but I doubt he'll do so very often at Liverpool. It is yet another option though, and options are good.

He was very much AC Milan's main striker and spearhead last season, and has the shot statistics to prove it.

Okay. That's suitably bonkers.

57 shots from inside the box, 95 from outside the box. 43.86% accuracy inside the box, 27.37% outside the box. As a reminder, this is what Suarez and Sturridge's shot charts looked like last season.

Three of Balotelli's eight goals last season from inside the box came from penalties, four of his six from outside the box were from free kicks. That's only seven open play goals in 2294 minutes. Chances are he won't be taking penalties at Liverpool, and will be second- or third-choice on free kicks.

Yes, a lot of Balotelli's shots from outside the box came from set plays. There's also the argument that Milan needed Balotelli to shoot early and often, from any and everywhere. And it's a valid argument. But Liverpool won't rely on Balotelli in the same manner.

Milan took 617 shots last season. Balotelli took 152, 24.6% of Milan's total shots. Almost a full quarter of Milan's shots despite playing just 67% of the minutes available. For comparison, Suarez took 27.8% of Liverpool's last season, but played 86.6% of the possible minutes; Sturridge took 15.3%, Coutinho 14.4%, Gerrard 9.2%, Henderson 7.5%, and Sterling 6.9%.

Here's Balotelli's full stat line from Milan's 2013-14 Serie A campaign.

And as this transfer is bound to evoke all the Suarez comparisons, let's indulge at least a little bit.

Let's be clear. Ronaldo and Messi are pretty much the only players who can really replicate what Suarez did last season.

Four things stood out about Suarez last season (at least statistically): his shot volume and accuracy, his ability to create for others, and his dribbling. Balotelli can bring two of those four, and you'd expect both his key passes and shot accuracy to at least marginally improve with better teammates for the former and better chances for the latter.

It's also worth noting that Balotelli's shot accuracy (without any drop in volume), key passes, dribbles, and tackles+interceptions per 90 minutes were all higher in the 13 games he played for Milan in the second half of 2012-13, after his January transfer from Manchester City. If he can replicate the form from that spell – especially the 47.89% shot accuracy – Liverpool are getting one hell of a player at one hell of a bargain.

But there's one more distinct way where Suarez differs from Balotelli. And it's the part of this transfer that makes me the most nervous. Suarez's problems on the pitch usually, if not always, stemmed from caring too much. When he was frustrated and frustrating, he tried even harder, sometimes to Liverpool's (and his own) detriment but usually to its benefit. Suarez played every match as if his life, and the lives of everyone he loves, depended on it. When Balotelli's frustrated, he seemingly becomes less involved, and makes the irrational decisions which led to 10 yellow cards and one red card last season. It might be more media narrative than Balotelli deserves – just like how some people (*gulps, tugs collar*) thought Sturridge was too selfish before joining Liverpool – but it's also what I remember when seeing him regularly at Manchester City. It was nearly three years ago, but taking 18 minutes to pick up two yellow cards which nearly cost City all three points in a 1-1 draw at Anfield still looms large in my memory. You may also remember that City won the title that season on goal difference; they desperately needed that single point.

We're allowed to do stupid things when in our early twenties – at least I was, and did – but you've got to grow up sometime. Now has to be that time; even Balotelli's agent has said that this will probably be Mario's last chance at a big club. And Liverpool are putting a lot of faith in Rodgers' (and Steve Peters') ability as Footballer Whisperer. Yes, it's a risk.

But it's not high risk. It's £16m for a 24-year-old striker with 33 Italy appearances, 31 Champions League appearances, three Serie A winners' medals, a Premier League winners' medal, a Champions League winners' medal, and FA Cup, Coppa Italia, Supercoppa Italiana, and Community Shield medals. If Balotelli doesn't deliver or unbalances the dressing room or whatever, he'll be gone, and there will be some (probably Italian) club who'll give Liverpool most of that money back, and Liverpool will have a readymade replacement when Origi returns from his season-long loan at Lille. There should be enough strong personalities in the squad to keep Balotelli from doing anything that throws off the group as a whole.

And if Liverpool gets the Mario Balotelli from Euro 2012 or that first half-season with AC Milan, it'll be very high-reward.


Marc said...

Ditching a troubled guy who used racism to try to get an advantage and adding a troubled guy who has had to overcome people using racism to keep him down his whole life?

Why, I do believe this ex-Red is back.

Anonymous said...

A 24 year old top class striker with power, pace, a cannon of a shot and a commanding physical presence in the box. If Mario has (and can keep) his head, focus and concentration in the game, he's going to be dynamite for us. He will have a welcoming and close knit squad and mgt. team and the best fans in world football behind him. Along with a hugely talented team and minus the crushing adversity of a large minority of small minded and vocal opposing fan bases. I'm planning on a 99% upside. And Stevie and Peters to whisper a few words to him when some of his demons may start to surface. "You're with us now, pal. We'll have your back. We need you at your imposing best".

The transfer fee and contractual arrangements have virtually eliminated any financial downside. Big props to Mario and Mino for agreeing to a pay cut and structuring £40k/wk of salary based on performance and related clauses.

We deserved better in the City match last night. First 40 minutes we looked great. Then a defensive lapse. Moreno caught flat footed and not attacking the ball because it would have required him to use his right boot for the clearance. He looked great otherwise. Markovic and Moreno combined on the left for some really cutting edge work that only needed a slightly better final ball to end up in the back of City's net. I really like the way Lazar runs directly at and attacks the defense while Moreno makes quick and intelligent runs off the ball.

There was very little between the 2 teams and we will be more than ready for the home match. Next week we have to go to WHL and make our own statement. I'm feeling it. So many options this year.