It took Jesus Christ 33 years to be crucified, so, at age 24, Mario Balotelli looks a decent bet to beat his time. It was always inevitable that at some point the Italian was going to face belligerent criticism, but the special blend of the English media’s unique brand of hysteria and them actually knowing who he is this time around has seen him. Nevertheless, if Balotelli was banging in a hattrick every game it would be much easier to laugh off the criticism, so how much of it is justified?
Something that can be dismissed straight away are the accusations of laziness. Rather ironic as it’s really quite a lazy criticism itself, Balotelli has had a generally deserved reputation of not tracking back at previous clubs so it was the first comment many people went to when he didn’t set the world alight straight away. It doesn’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny though: one of the more impressive things about him so far is that he has bought into the team ethic – getting back into position quickly and pushing up when needed, most notably against Spurs.
He doesn’t have the manic output of the departed Luis Suarez, but then few do and the comparison isn’t really fair because he isn’t even really meant to. Liverpool’s full throttle approach that stormed the league’s run-in was a change made broadly to indulge Suarez. Brendan Rodgers had toyed with several strategies early in his tenure to middling success, scraping games through Liverpool’s attacking quality in the first half of 2013-14 yet never really nailing down a cohesive team until he altered the side to get Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling forward together. To some extent, Chelsea exposed the weaknesses in the tactic though: deny that space to burst in to (admittedly done in this case by surrendering any attacking thought), and Liverpool can be short of ideas. They simply overpowered so many teams that when someone sat back and required them to be patient, they couldn’t pass the test.
The exit of Suarez gives Rodgers the opportunity to refine the gameplan. Jordan Henderson, Sturridge, Sterling and new signing Lazar Markovic can all continue the rapid breaks of last year, but Adam Lallana and Mario Balotelli (also Rickie Lambert, who is essentially a downgrade on the exact same role as what Balotelli plays) suggest more thought is being given to the possession-orientated Death By Football blueprint Rodgers initially had laid out. Balotelli’s uncertain start has come from him failing to mould to the former and his teammates not giving him enough support when he’s playing to the latter.
One of the main pluses from his arrival is that he makes it harder for teams to sit deep and deny the likes of Sterling that space they need to run in behind the defence. Only really Zlatan Ibrahimovic is notably better at playing as a target man in modern football – Balotelli has the ability to kill any long ball towards him dead and hold off the defenders’ challenges. This was most noticeable against Basel, where he was up against three centre backs yet still consistently came away with the ball and held it up.
Liverpool struggled to play their way out from the back, with Basel blocking off the passes into the midfield. Here Javier Manquillo (blue) receives the ball in a unthreatening position. Due to a bobble on the pitch he actually miscontrols this simple ball and almost loses it.
Luckily Markovic is on hand to pick it up, but the problem remains: the only easy balls for him to play are backwards or to Manquillo right next to him, which would only serve to slow down his overlapping run into the large amount of space ahead of him. Markovic instead opts to send a high ball over the top to Balotelli (red).
Balotelli takes it on his chest and holds off the challenges of two Basel defenders, before laying it off to Manquillo in acres of space. He crosses the ball to an offside Sterling, killing the move, but Liverpool have got the ball from back to front in seven seconds despite having all their easy passing options cut out. Liverpool would of course go on to lose this game, but Balotelli and Markovic (who would regularly mimic Manquillo’s run from this move) were the few bright spots. Their problem was that few were ever available to receive the ball once Balotelli brought it down – Sterling was stationed on the wing and knackered after pointlessly playing 120 minutes in a League Cup game against Middlesbrough, Philippe Coutinho is wasted in a number 10 role and wouldn’t make those runs beyond, and Jordan Henderson was playing deeper next to Steven Gerrard and couldn’t get up in support. Only Markovic, who still isn’t match-sharp, and Manquillo, who just isn’t very good going forward, were ever making these runs ahead of Balotelli.
The other benefit to having Balotelli in Liverpool’s build-up play is his willingness to drop off the front and link up with those around him. The greatest example of this hasn’t come from Balotelli however, with Rickie Lambert’s role in Adam Lallana’s goal against West Brom showing exactly what this role offers:
Coutinho has the ball in an unthreatening position against a mounted West Brom defence. Lambert (red) is positioned high against the defence but there is space between the lines where he can easily receive the ball from Coutinho.
He drops off into this space allowing Coutinho an easy option to play it forward.
He receives the ball to feet and easily lays it off to Lallana. The winger still had to come up with some incredible footwork and combined well with Henderson to score his first Liverpool goal, but it was Lambert’s dropping off that moved the ball into this dangerous area when Coutinho appeared to have reached a dead end.
Balotelli regularly makes an identical move – he and Lambert being the same type of player. The biggest difference between them is obviously that Balotelli has far greater technical ability than Lambert, but the more significant difference in the team’s structure comes from him being faster than the former Southampton man. While Lambert can drop off into the tip of the midfield, opposition defensive lines can push up knowing that he won’t have the speed to get in behind them. Balotelli can, so stepping up leaves that same space for him to potentially do what Francesco Totti did against Man City the other week.
The major problem so far for Liverpool has been that he hasn’t been doing this. When faced with the opportunity to dart in behind defences, he has generally stayed deeper, which has been at odds with a team whose attacking play has largely been about breaking at defences at speed. It is unlucky that Daniel Sturridge has been injured for every game but Balotelli’s debut since the Italian has joined the club and that Sterling’s fitness has taken a dip in recent weeks as both could provide that running beyond. It’s also noteworthy that Liverpool’s play improved when poacher Fabio Borini was introduced alongside him against Ludogorets, constantly looking to test the offside trap where Balotelli wouldn’t, pushing their defence deeper to make room for Sterling to use behind them.
Nevertheless, it isn’t a particularly difficult thing to do and we know he’s capable of it as he’s played this same line-leading role for Italy – one of the most notable features of Andrea Pirlo’s free rein over England at Euro 2012 were the long balls over the top to Balotelli running behind the defence. These have been largely absent from his time at Liverpool so far.
Here Balotelli (red) has been key in controlling a long ball from a goal kick and laying it off to his teammates. Chasing a late equaliser, West Brom have pushed up and Glen Johnson is dropping a lofted ball into this space behind their backline.
Although he’s closest to it, Balotelli’s role in the build-up and it immediately becoming clear that Gerrard is running diagonally to pick up the ball means he’s under no expectation to get on the end of Johnson’s pass. What he should be doing instead is running into the box to give Gerrard an option to cross to.
He instead hangs back and it is only some quick thinking by Gerrard, backheeling it first time to Balotelli, that stops him from being crowded into the corner.
Balotelli picks up the ball and manages to make enough space for himself to sting the gloves of Ben Foster. However, had he made that run, he would have been in a much more dangerous area to receive the ball and kill off the game.
Part of the issue may be that Balotelli has been playing as the major creative hub at AC Milan. When you have Sulley Muntari and Valter Birsa trying to set you up, you may be better off dropping deep to create chances yourself, but so far at Liverpool this tendency has killed off the quick breaks that brought them so much success last year. For example, it was noticeable that, despite his excellent game, Lallana was holding onto the ball longer than he should have in the Merseyside derby, which was largely to do with Balotelli not making those runs that would put him one-on-one with the keeper if Lallana could pick him out.
A final criticism could be made of his infuriating tendency to shoot from unlikely areas. It can end in goals like this, but more frequently ends up high, wide or in the keeper’s arms, killing dead any build-up. It could be a nervous Balotelli too eager to add to his goal tally and get people onside, but given it’s been a feature throughout his career it may be something we simply have to get used to. That may be Mario being Mario, unlike those half-arsed observations about his laziness.