Anybody trying to defend Mario Balotelli right now is rightly derided as crazy. No goals in nine league appearances for a supposedly international striker is simply indefensible, and even his cup record of two in five hasn’t exactly proved his critics wrong: £8million per goal. Nice.
Yet, as a Liverpool supporter, I find myself attempting to protect poor Mario against all this completely fair criticism being aimed at him in pretty much every newspaper, school, and public house in England. As it is, the only excuse I can fall back on is that he’s exhausted every possibility of maintaining everyone’s attention – setting off fireworks in his house, giving out free money, being pretty good at football, attacking managers, struggling with bibs etc… – so that the only thing left is suddenly being a lot worse at football.
OK, perhaps even Balotelli wouldn’t sabotage his own performance just to keep himself on the back pages, but this leaves us with an awkward question – was the onetime Italian wonderkid ever actually good, or was it all hype? Was Mario Balotelli right to ask, ‘Why always me?’
Fortunately for us Reds, Balotelli’s performances become slightly more understandable when put in context. Of course, the striker has not only scored no goals, but has seemed to have an indifferent and sometimes lazy attitude towards his game. Attacking statistics of just 1.3 shots on target per game in the Premier League this season seem to back this up, while he has made no assists for other players.
But, we should also remind ourselves that none of the Liverpool players used so far during the 2014/15 season could claim to have performed admirably this season. The Italian has been at the worse end of an extremely average bunch. And with the media trying to frame the transfer as a direct replacement for the world-class Suarez, anything other than a highly impressive start for Mario would have been labelled as a disappointment.
However, it is Balotelli’s lack of strike partner that has taken the most significant bite into his attacking effectiveness. The 24-year old was never going to be the type of player who could play on his own as part of a 4-2-3-1 formation (at Manchester City he was used more regularly alongside another forward such as Sergio Aguero or Edin Dzeko) – he lacks the pace and movement to create chances on his own.
Unfortunately for Brendan Rodgers, he has been forced into isolating Balotelli by the continuous injuries to Daniel Sturridge. Perhaps it has been bad planning to allow one injury to deflate a season, but plan A, and its potential for success, was momentarily clear back in August: a forward partnership of Balotelli and Sturridge supported by a Raheem Sterling-tipped diamond ripped a healthy-looking Spurs side apart with a 3-0 victory.
During the match, Sturridge linked up with his seemingly fresh and zealous Italian strike-partner on numerous occasions, who perhaps had as many sights of goal in those 61 debut minutes as he’s had in his 13 games since. Sturridge was injured on international duty just five days later and hasn’t played since.
If this diamond set-up could be recreated, then Balotelli and Liverpool could be resuscitated from their choking season. Admittedly, it is dangerous to place so much faith in the return of one player, but this nevertheless makes the rapid return of Daniel Sturridge all the more important for Brendan Rodgers. Not because of Sturridge, but because of Balotelli.
Expertly written by TJ Jordan