It was around the 74th minute of last week’s League Cup tie between Chelsea and Liverpool; about 4 minutes after he had come on, a clear misunderstanding between Mario Balotelli and Steven Gerrard summed up the former’s time at the club. Gerrard picked up the ball towards the right-hand side around 45 yards from goal and played a diagonal pass towards the back post, anticipating Balotelli to be arriving there. Balotelli, on the other hand, did was he’s used to and came short, looking to pick up the ball, anticipating that he would receive it just outside the box and be able to turn. This was a microcosm of his poor form at Liverpool thus far, which is totally explainable – he isn’t a bad player at all, he’s just a completely wrong fit for them and a bizarre signing considering the player he was brought into replace.
Last season, Liverpool played with forward players prepared to run beyond opposition defensive lines (obviously staying onside!) which were being dragged back towards their own goal. They enjoyed success doing this because they often broke forward as soon as they regained possession, quicker than their opposite numbers could turn around and catch them. This also required direct forward runs from the front players to further stretch the opposition. Balotelli’s runs and general movement, however, just don’t mix with Liverpool’s build-up play. In contrast to the likes of Suarez and Sturridge, he likes to make runs towards the ball and receive it to feet as well as drift out to the left hand side and receive from a standing position. These are far from bad characteristics in a footballer, but it limits the team’s momentum in this system because the passes in behind the defence aren’t there, which means the players have to keep the ball in front of the opposition’s defence for longer than usual. Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but when a team is used to looking for an early penetrative pass, it impacts on their chances of scoring as the opposition are able to get players behind the ball and press in areas they previously couldn’t to prevent a ball splitting their defence.
Despite his size, Balotelli doesn’t play in occupied space and try to gain a yard on defenders. That’s not his game at all. This video of Suarez’s 31 goals last season, however, shows that it’s exactly what is wanted from Liverpool’s strikers in this system in order for it to work – as he was so comfortable picking the ball up in tight areas and was agile enough to evade defenders, he benefited from passes which he could take in his stride and would turn him towards goal.:
Because he was capable of moving to find space in any direction without breaking stride, he didn’t need to make runs through the middle all the time, and often scored when the ball was played past him to a more advanced teammate, take the first three goals in the above video as examples. Compare that to a highlights video of Balotelli here:
and the differences in style are striking. He prefers to play at a considerably slower tempo and crucially in front of opposition defenders. It’s very effective in the right team, as his prior scoring record suggests, but not where he is now, as his scoring record this season would also suggest.
The success, and importantly Suarez’s output, yielded by the system bred further confidence in the Uruguayan and he made these runs instinctively. To be confident and act instinctively is vital when playing this role. Balotelli’s poor form since arriving at the club has clearly affected his confidence – even if you know you’re not compatible with a system, you still begin to question yourself as a player when it’s not working out.
With his morale gone, he’s even less likely to endeavour to get into these positions. The attempted pass from Gerrard referred to in the first paragraphed was a typical pass a Liverpool midfield player would have given Suarez last season. Although it’s by no means the only reason that Liverpool are finding it a lot tougher this season, it is no coincidence that Liverpool’s recent good run of form has come without Balotelli in the side as they simply look a much more balanced unit.
I think it’s only become apparent to people this season how important Suarez was to Liverpool in the system they played so successfully last season. In terms of playing style, he and Balotelli are poles apart. I appreciate that they were never going to get anybody as good as Suarez and replace him like-for-like, but the aim should have been to find someone who was going to upset the balance of the system (to which Suarez was the key) as little as possible.
Given that Balotelli could hardly be more different as a player and getting the best out of him would require considerable changes in how the rest of the team play, he was never going to fit as a replacement. The little snippet of play from last week, added to his performances for the club so far, was evidence that the team will have a long way to go to adapt to this, and most likely it’ll be seen as better for the club that they don’t try to do this.
Brendan Rogers is obviously going to say the door is still open for Balotelli – and it is, because I don’t think he’ll allow himself to be drawn into a feud with a player and cause a situation where one of them (the player) has to leave the club. Those words aren’t, however, going to turn Balotelli into a success at the club or even reinstate him in the side. If a player doesn’t have a high value to a team, he’s likely to be moved on, and it’ll take Balotelli more time to adapt to the demands of playing in Rogers’ system than it’ll take Liverpool to offer him to other clubs or accept offers from interested parties.
It’s a shame because I like Balotelli and wanted this move to work out so that some of the (pretty unfair) criticism would wear off, but it was never going to. There is clearly something there – his scoring record is in fact very impressive, both in his club career (until now) and internationally. Some things just aren’t meant to be, and this is one of those cases.