19 November 2014

On Mario Balotelli (again)

Yes, we need to talk about Mario Balotelli.

We needed to talk about Mario Balotelli before Sturridge picked up his third injury of the season. We needed to talk about Mario Balotelli before Liverpool picked up just eight points from their last eight matches.

I've undoubtedly missed a couple, but this is extensive enough. Also not included? Players more expensive than Balotelli and players who weren't coming to Liverpool even if Liverpool tried: for example, Diego Costa, Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, and Danny Welbeck, with nine, eight, four, and two goals respectively.

This seems a fairly large indictment of Liverpool's vaunted transfer committee.

Balotelli's Premier League scoreless streak is nearing historic lengths, memorably Peter Crouch's from 2005-06. Crouch went 18 matches, 1229 minutes, before scoring his first for Liverpool. But his drought in the league lasted 706 minutes. Balotelli, although with two goals in cup competitions, is without a league goal through 685 minutes for Liverpool. He's got 22 minutes against Crystal Palace on Saturday before reaching Crouch's ignominious mark. Notably, Crouch's streak might have been even longer had Rafa Benitez not removed him from the firing line, increasingly using him as a substitute with Cisse and Morientes starting, because of Crouch's struggles.

So, is it a failure of Liverpool's scouting, opting for a player who didn't fit the system when there were cheaper and better available? Is it a failure of Brendan Rodgers, unable or unwilling to make alterations or set up the side to maximize Balotelli's strengths? Is it a failure of Balotelli's, devoid of confidence and disappointing in the extreme?

Yes. To all of the above.

A comparison of this season's Balotelli to last season's Balotelli, via the handy radar graphic created by Ted Knutson.

Sigh. We worried about, but tried to talk ourselves into, his statistical profile from last season when he signed a few months back, and he hasn't even reached those marks. Sure, he's done a few things better: most notably in his defensive workrate and in retaining possession, but also a slightly better shooting and passing accuracy. Unsurprisingly, his key attacking statistics – goals, total shots, key passes, and dribbles – range from "a bit lower" to "what the $#!% happened?"

My suspicion is two-fold, and fairly obvious. He's not only vastly different to Suarez and Sturridge, who last season's team and successes were built around, but Liverpool aren't being set up to take advantage of his talents either.

I doubt it's coincidence that Balotelli has looked more effective in matches at Tottenham and against Real Madrid, partnered with Sturridge in a diamond in the first, partnered with Sterling in a diamond in the second and actually taking the game to Madrid before their superior talent blew Liverpool away.

The only other time we've seen the diamond since Sturridge's injury was at West Ham, where Liverpool's horrific defending saw them concede twice in the first seven minutes, ultimately abandoning the formation for a marginally more secure 3-5-2.

I obviously don't watch enough Serie A to argue about the merits of Balotelli as a lone striker in that league, but it's become fairly clear it's not working in this league, with this squad.

Nor is it coincidence that Balotelli's two cup goals have come from deep inside the opposition's penalty area, making strong runs into the box to get on the end of crosses from Moreno and Borini.

Mario Balotelli has received 220 passes in his nine Liverpool appearances (not counting passes received when offside). Just 23 have been inside the penalty box, including just one in each of Liverpool's last two losses against Newcastle and Chelsea.

As he's increasingly isolated, as Liverpool struggles, Balotelli drops deeper in search of the ball, leaving Liverpool even more bereft of power up front and removing the one guy who's supposed to be scoring the goals from the area where you score those goals.

For comparison, here is Daniel Sturridge's average position in the last eight league matches that he played without Luis Suarez: the five to start last season and the three before his injury this season.

Except for two matches – at Villa and against United last season, where Liverpool notably shelled after Sturridge's early goal – Sturridge's average position is much higher up the pitch, whether the other attackers are Coutinho or Sterling or Henderson or Aspas or Moses or Balotelli. Here are some of Sturridge's stats from those eight matches compared to Balotelli's nine matches for Liverpool this season.

There are actually a couple of similarities, primarily in chances created (and the subsequent lack of assists), but also number of shots on-target and amount of successful passes. The differences? Well, obviously, goals. Also, shot accuracy, successful dribbles, and throughballs. You know, those dangerous attacking metrics, the things that Sturridge and Suarez and Liverpool thrived upon last season. And, Daniel Sturridge's proportion of shots from inside the box.

Three of Sturridge's five goals in the above eight games came inside the six-yard box (the one at Swansea was in the center of the 18-yard box, the one against Stoke was from just outside the box). Mario Balotelli has taken all of four shots from inside the six-yard box in the league since he joined Liverpool: one on-target, three off-target (including that amazing woodwork blast against Everton).

And in match-by-match GIF form…

Yikes. Especially that massive gap in the left side of the penalty box, which is unbelievable for a right-footed player who often drifts to the left channel. I'll also remind that's the area where his first goal, against Ludogorets, came from. And while that shot chart is terrifying, Balotelli actually took a higher percentage of his shots with Milan last season from outside the box. It could be worse?

But has Liverpool really been that much worse than in the same fixtures last season?

Liverpool created 23 more chances in these 11 fixtures last season, but that disparity is explained by two matches: at Newcastle and against Chelsea. Liverpool created 19 chances in each of those matches last season, with Newcastle reduced to 10 men for the majority of the match and Chelsea happy to play with 10 or 11 men in their defensive third. Liverpool created 12, combined, in those two matches this season. Otherwise, the totals are fairly similar.

Similar goes for Liverpool's total shots in these 11 fixtures. 197 last season, 162 this season – a difference of 35 – but the discrepancy came against Newcastle and Chelsea, against those two deep defenses. Combined, Liverpool took 31 more shots in those two fixtures last season.

Neither statistic explains why Liverpool scored 14 more goals in these 11 fixtures last season. Maybe the fact that Suarez and Sturridge were responsible for 16 of those 28 goals last season, and that Sturridge has just one goal this season, does though.

You've probably seen this graphic before, either here or on Twitter.

Yes, Liverpool are shaky in defense, and it has cost them points during this turgid season. Similar goes for Liverpool's at-times-unbalanced midfield anchored by Gerrard. But those things happened in matches last season too.

The difference is up front. Balotelli is not the only failure so far this season (*glares at Liverpool's other two "strikers"* *glares at Rodgers*), but he's been the most egregious. I'm not smart enough to know what the solution is: whether it's using the diamond or 4-2-2-2 more often, Balotelli partnered with Borini or even Sterling or Markovic, or a more extended run for the also-struggling Rickie Lambert. Using Sterling on the left or centrally, another drum I've repeatedly beaten, would probably help as well.

But I know that this isn't working.

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