At least Brendan Rodgers did not try to sugarcoat it. “Trouble,” he replied, when asked before Liverpool’s convincing defeat at Manchester City what Mario Balotelli brought to a squad that has known only progress for the past 19 months. The Liverpool manager was half-joking and that is how it usually is on the topic of the complicated Italian striker. He needs the conversation to switch from character flaws to footballing gifts as swiftly as possible.
Tales of fireworks, darts and driving up to a sixth-form college to use its toilet have shaped Balotelli’s reputation more than performances for Internazionale, Manchester City, Milan or Italy, his Euro 2012 semi-final devastation of Germany included. They are hardly heinous crimes and have cast the 24-year-old in a softer light than his occasionally casual approach to training, managerial instructions and his own potential perhaps deserve.
They also cloud the undeniable truth that, despite the fascination that manifested itself outside Liverpool’s Melwood training ground on Friday night, when Balotelli was mobbed by adoring supporters before he had sealed a £16m move from Milan, the striker has delivered only sporadically throughout his career. Liverpool require far more from their ninth summer signing, and the most surprising of Rodgers’ reign as manager, to enhance their Premier League title claims given City’s comfortable authority and superior penetration – three goals from four shots on target – at the Etihad Stadium.
Balotelli observed from the directors’ box as Daniel Sturridge cut an isolated figure until the second-half introduction of Lazar Markovic. Then Liverpool’s switch to 4-4-2 when Rickie Lambert entered the fray injected belated energy and menace into the visitors’ display. Luis Suárez took an element of unpredictability from the Liverpool attack when he departed for Barcelona and Rodgers can only hope it returns with the introduction of Balotelli.The Liverpool manager has no qualms over any potential ego-clash between Sturridge and the Italy international. Past experience of Sturridge and Suárez, who scored 21 and 31 league goals apiece last season despite not seeing eye to eye, supports that conviction although the England international may feel entitled to more opportunities as the focal point now that the Uruguay international has gone.
Balotelli was deployed on the left at times by Roberto Mancini at City but as Rodgers demonstrated here – using a lone striker in Sturridge, a front three of Sterling, Sturridge and Markovic and finally a front two of Sturridge and Lambert – tactical versatility is a prerequisite at Liverpool. The recruit will also have to improve the creative side of his game, with his previous spell in the Premier League renowned for selfishness as much as the occasional flash of brilliance and expertise from the penalty spot.
It is rare for the manager of a £16m signing, and that player’s agent, to admit the arrival is in the last-chance saloon but that is exactly how Balotelli’s move to Anfield has been described by Rodgers and Mino Raiola.
The Liverpool manager also said the same about Sturridge following his £12m transfer from Chelsea and that has not exactly backfired. It is success with Sturridge, and others, that has tempted Rodgers to take a calculated risk on Balotelli. In addition Milan dropped their asking price by almost half and an exhaustive search for a new striker after the collapse of Loic Rémy’s proposed transfer unearthed only Balotelli and the Everton-bound Samuel Eto’o as the gettable options.
“I looked at the talent and he is a wonderful talent,” said Rodgers when explaining why his categorical denial that Balotelli would become a Liverpool player – made three weeks ago – was not as categorical as he made out. “We potentially will have the English No9 and the Italian No9. Mario is at a stage in his career where this might be his last chance. He needs to settle down and show maturity but I have worked with loads of players like that. He has huge potential but he needs to come here and be consistent and, if he can do that, then we have one hell of a player.”
The Liverpool manager added: “He is a very bright boy and he knows this is his last chance. He’s a really good guy and I’m excited to work with him. Mario is someone we can improve both as a footballer and as a person. We’re going to show him what we demand from our front players. He is super quick, strong and powerful but he can improve his transition moment from losing the ball to getting it back.”
Rodgers has placed great emphasis on signing players of the right character for Liverpool, namely those who will adhere to his demands for elite performance standards at all times in training and on match-day. This is where the risk element of the calculation on Balotelli comes into play with a relatively young Liverpool squad. Also, for all the positivity surrounding Balotelli’s signing at Liverpool, the striker will quickly discover that Anfield is no place to drop the head, throw a strop and then expect sympathy. His misdemeanours pale in comparison with the man he has replaced but Suárez’s insatiable appetite for work and to win could never be questioned. At 24 Balotelli still has that to answer.