Following Luis Suarez’s departure from Merseyside to Barcelona earlier this summer and the subsequent arrivals of Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana, to name a few, it has been said by many that Liverpool had perhaps not made the most of the money presented to them by the Uruguayan’s exit.
Preparing to embark on their first European adventure since the 2009-10 season, it was evident throughout the summer that Liverpool needed more depth in the striking department. Well, it seems as though they have found their man.
Mario Balotelli’s arrival at Anfield looks set to be confirmed early on Friday morning, meaning he will be eligible to face former employers Manchester City when the sides meet at the Etihad Stadium on Monday evening.
There aren’t many footballers around that polarise opinion quite like Mario. Often cherished by some, and chastised by others, the eccentric Italian will cause more debates this week than anything else in the English game as he makes a return to the country he left just 18 months ago to join his boyhood club. The focus of these debates will not be his footballing ability, with most of his critics focusing on his often bizarre behaviour.
Personally, I have always been a fan of Balotelli and have no doubts that he will be a success at Anfield, well, on a short term basis at least. The Italian celebrated his 24th birthday just last month and it could be argued that his best years are still to come. If that is the case then the Premier League better brace themselves for something outstanding.
Balotelli will score goals, it really is that simple. He has done wherever he has played before and I see no reason why that will stop at Liverpool. Since reaching the age of 20, Mario averages a goal every 140 minutes played. Liverpool fans will be keen to point out the similarity here with the record of Luis Suarez, who averaged a goal every 139 minutes during his time in the Premier League.
His record in Italy was impressive, too. During his time at Milan Mario has netted 26 league goals – a tally surpassed by no other Serie A player in that time.
Liverpool’s success last season owed a lot to the coaching diversification and flexibility of Brendan Rodgers. The 41-year-old’s ability to alter from one system to another not only on a week by week basis but also several times during the same game was one of the key factors in their unexpected title challenge. This is an environment in which Balotelli fits perfectly. His diversity on the pitch allows him to play in a range of positions and as part of a number of formations. It could even be argued that he is best when he is not the central striker and the focal point of the team. He has no problem playing out wide in a 4-3-3; nor is it an issue for him to play as part of a striking duo; he is also happy to lead the line of a 4-2-3-1 or even being any of the three players behind the main striker in that system.
One big problem each of Balotelli’s managers have faced is the challenge of keeping him happy. If there is one man who has proven his ability to successfully handle a tempestuous personality over the last two seasons it is certainly Brendan Rodgers. When motivated, Balotelli is almost unstoppable. His first few months at Milan prove this. Upon his return to Italy to play for his boyhood club, Mario scored twice in his debut including the goal which won the game. After this, he went on to score 10 times in the 12 games he played before the season concluded.
Last season was a different story, however. During the last campaign we saw the worst of the Italian. Often drifting in and out of games and allowing himself to become frustrated to the point that it was always likely that he would pick up at least a yellow card, and would often be fortunate to get away without a red. He found himself at the centre of some heavy criticism from the curva and relations were not good between Mario and the Rossoneri faithful, or with fans in Italy as a whole.
Mario will be happy in a more relaxed environment in England. The expectation placed on his shoulder in Italy would overwhelm most. These expectations and criticisms are not always football related. The absence of large-scale and frequent racial abuse will provide the 24-year-old with a much more laid back environment to play his football. From a young age, Balotelli was made the face of an anti-racism campaign and a push for a new and modernised Italy. The race row in Italy is as prominent as ever, and unfortunately looks to be taking steps in the wrong direction with the recent election of Carlo Tavecchio to presidency of the FIGC – a man who referred to some of the leagues foreign players as ‘banana eaters’ during the time at which he was running for the position.
He will be playing in a better team and will no longer be responsible for carrying them through tough matches on his own. With players like Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling and Phillipe Coutinho around him he will definitely get chances in front of goal. The presence of Daniel Sturridge as the main man for goals will no doubt satisfy Mario to no end as he will feel the weight of a stadium lifted from his shoulders and shared around to his teammates.