It turns out it is not always him. Mario Balotelli made his much-hyped debut for his latest team but it was the Liverpool collective that stole the show. The Italian contributed to the visitors’ exhilarating victory at White Hart Lane but most of his team’s drive came from less vaunted players such as Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen, while the magic came courtesy of Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge and Alberto Moreno. This was exactly the sort of performance that Brendan Rodgers must have craved, one that demonstrated that Balotelli needs Liverpool more than Liverpool need him.
Many see Balotelli as a sort of footballing version of Bardarbunga, the volcano currently active in Iceland: fascinating to watch and likely to blow at any time, potentially engulfing his club in a dense cloud of chaos. Such observers might have read much into the fact that the Italian stomped out for his inaugural match with different colour boots on each foot, as if acknowledging that he is a striker who embodies extreme contrasts. Or perhaps he, like an expectant mother who does not know the sex of her baby, just could not decide between pink and blue. Whatever. The most eye-catching thing about the player’s display was what we had been warned not to expect: hard work, chasing back, evidence that he has engaged with the team ethic that Rodgers has fostered.
“For the first time in his life he marked at a corner,” said Rodgers. “Seriously. An international player who has won three titles and the Champions League and we were training during the week and he said to me ‘I don’t mark at corners’. I said ‘you do now’. And he went in and did it great.” Rodgers has already proved in the way that he has nurtured, for example, Sterling that he is not afraid to demand sacrifices from gifted individuals and he believes that is the key to ensuring Balotelli makes a success of his Anfield switch, the manager summarising his approach thus: “Give him responsibility, treat him like an adult.”
There were other signs that ‘Balo’ is prepared to do the bare necessities of life for Liverpool, such as when he chased back to the edge of his own area to harass Erik Lamela into coughing up the ball. His body language, so often decried, was also encouraging: there was a thumbs up for Steven Gerrard for a well-intentioned but misdirected pass and, perhaps most surprisingly given his form for getting sidetracked by personal battles, no attempt to avenge the crunching tackle by Eric Dier that left him on the ground in the first half. It was, in a sense, reassuring that the only thing for which Balotelli could be berated was a few errant finishes.
Balotelli missed three clear chances to open his account for Liverpool. An early close-range header was saved by Hugo Lloris and another was sent off-target. Then, in the 31st minute, he shanked a shot way wide after creating the chance with powerful hold-up play. Rodgers’ reaction was telling: he grinned widely, seemingly unconcerned by the squandered opportunity because he knew a striker of Balotelli’s calibre is unlikely to continue perpetrating such misses and Liverpool are likely to continue creating a cornucopia of chances.
Sturridge showcased his ingenuity to set up Liverpool’s opening goal, wriggling past two defenders before slipping the ball through to Henderson, who sent a low cross towards the back post for Sterling to score. It was wonderful play and Balotelli’s role was confined to occupying a couple of Spurs defenders, providing a distraction that his team welcomed.
Sturridge, Henderson and Sterling continued to excel as Liverpool threatened to repeat the beatings they administered to Tottenham last season. That is impressive given that here they started with four newcomers to the club. It was suggested during the summer that, having lost Luis Suárez and brought in many new players, Liverpool would endure the sort of stuttering campaign that Spurs suffered last season after trying to replace Gareth Bale with several new signings, but this match underlined the fallacy of that thinking: there has been some player turnover at Liverpool but no change of plan or style.
That, perhaps, is why Liverpool’s recruits seem to be adapting to their surrounds much quicker than Tottenham’s did last term. Alberto Moreno reinforced that point with panache, hitting Liverpool’s third goal here after dispossessing Andros Townsend and sprinting 60 yards down the left wing before shooting into the far corner of the net. White Hart Lane had not witnessed such a strike since Bale’s time and it was the perfect way for Moreno to prove that he will not allow his Liverpool career to be defined by the mistake he made against Manchester City on Monday.
Javier Manquillo already looks like an upgrade on Glen Johnson at right-back and Dejan Lovren seems to be the best centre-back at Anfield, even if Liverpool still look shaky in central defence. Lazar Markovic again showed good touches after coming off the bench and Adam Lallana is nearing fitness. If Balotelli builds on this, then Liverpool, appropriately, will be able to claim that they have done what Tottenham were memorably said to have done 12 months ago: sold Elvis to buy the Beatles.