James Dutton looks at two lessons from Liverpool’s recent past for Mario Balotelli…
Mario Balotelli is at a crossroads. In fact, Mario Balotelli is always at a crossroads.
Every decision he makes, however crucial or anodyne, is analysed for its far-reaching consequences and wider meaning by somebody somewhere. Every pass, every run, every shot, every turn is scrutinised and pored over in minute detail like every dismissal suffered by Kevin Pietersen. The record-breaking batsman once famously said, “It’s tough being me in this dressing room”, and you imagine the Italian knows where he’s coming from.
This scrutiny reached new peaks at the weekend when he was patronised by commentators for working the channels and tracking back; like a schoolchild receiving a gold star for a sympathetically deficient piece of homework.
In reality it was a seven out of 10 performance for a footballer fully capable of nine and tens, but who has mostly hovered around the fours and fives since his £16m to Liverpool from AC Milan.
For Liverpool to be stuck in this position with a misfiring multi-million pound striker is nothing new. Andy Carroll will always pop into mind when the term “expensive flop” is bandied around Anfield, but for now Balotelli is neither of those things; £16m is not a lot of money in football anymore, and there is still time for him to rectify his career on Merseyside.
The two strikers of recent Anfield past whose difficult starts run most in parallel with Balotelli’s own are in fact Peter Crouch and Robbie Keane. For the former, his time on Anfield was a redemptive story, from the boy who couldn’t score to an effective secondary weapon during Rafa Benitez’s time at Anfield. The latter, a £20m signing hailed in some quarters as the missing piece in Liverpool’s title challenge jigsaw, was an undeniable failure.
It’s the threat of being the “New Robbie Keane” that should lurk most ominously in the back of the Italian’s mind. Keane arrived at Anfield as a 28 year-old, supposedly in the prime of his career, a proven Premier League goalscorer ready to partner Fernando Torres and shoulder the goalscoring burden that would have threatened to weigh down the Kop darling.
The circumstances of his arrival, his place in the system, were very different to that which Balotelli has been brought in to fill. The Irishman was expected to knit the play; in simplistic terms it was his job to receive balls from Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso, and thread them through to Torres. It didn’t really work out like that. In Keane’s half-a-season at Anfield he only partnered the Spaniard from the start in seven league games.
Keane’s troubled spell on Merseyside happened to coincide with Fernando Torres’ worst spell of injuries at the club; he featured only 12 times in the Premier League before Keane returned to White Hart Lane in February 2009. Ballotelli too, has visibly struggled without a strike partner, and his integration into Brendan Rodgers’ set-up has suffered by only playing 61 minutes alongside Daniel Sturridge so far.
Keane failed to score in his first 10 games for the club, but the partnership prospered for a time and the two combined well in a 2-0 win at Goodison Park. Fundamentally though, that Liverpool side at the time was one which had flourished in the latter half of the 2007-8 season playing a 4-2-3-1 system which maximised the abilities of its dynamic players – Torres, Gerrard and Alonso. Keane upset the rhythm and looked out of place; Torres didn’t need a partner, in fact he was inhibited by it, a fact which often undermined his performances at international level.
It was a transfer that manager Rafa Benitez had not envisaged without the prior purchase of Gareth Barry. The money for the then Aston Villa captain was never forthcoming, and Benitez was stuck with a player he had only wanted if he was able to bring another one in first. The divorce was inevitable, and feels prophetic when the current predicament surrounding Balotelli and Rodgers is considered.
The Italian international is not a Rodgers footballer, nor is he a Rodgers signing – another one for the veiled and mysterious transfer committee. Balotelli offers Liverpool a different way of playing when he is a lone striker, yet the injury to Daniel Sturridge has resulted in it being the only way the team are playing; the results and performances suggest it doesn’t suit them.
If Balotelli is viewed as a Plan B signing for Liverpool, then Peter Crouch’s own barren beginning to Liverpool life shows there is room for manoeuvre, that it doesn’t have to end in the embarrassing mess that Robbie Keane’s Anfield career did.
In the summer of 2005 Liverpool were champions of Europe. They could have had the pick of Europe, yet instead, just under a month after Istanbul, the Reds entered the transfer market for a rather unfancied target; Peter Crouch. The 6’7” striker had the month before made his England debut and had scored 13 goals in all competitions for a relegated Southampton since January of that year.
His career was on the up, but a goal drought of 19 games, over 24 hours without finding the net, became a long-running joke in the autumn of 2005, so much so that it coined the phrase “good touch for a big man.” Crouch was patronised in a similar manner to Balotelli, with commentators often marvelling at his touch, spatial awareness and close-control, given how far his brain was from his feet.
Crouch found himself a regular starter given the troubles of other strike-partners, the erratic Djibril Cisse and the ghost of Fernando Morientes. Benitez placed his faith in who he believed had a long-term future at the club, who would prove to be the side’s attacking reference point.
After a missed penalty at home to Portsmouth in November it would have been so easy to drop the non-scoring striker, exacerbating his already rock bottom confidence. Benitez stayed firm, Crouch remained a starter, and finally rewarded his manager’s show of faith with a brace against Wigan Athletic. The persistence paid off, Crouch scored seven in his next eight games and remained an almost permanent fixture in the starting eleven for the rest of the season.
His three-year Anfield career was a relative success, though he was never as central to the team’s purpose as in those first nine months. That Crouch was brought to Liverpool with a plan was clear almost immediately, he linked well with Steven Gerrard, who that season won the Football Writers’ Player of the Year. The application was always there from Crouch, it was whether he had the talent to match it at the highest level which was forensically questioned.
Balotelli is already out-scoring the pair of Keane and Crouch at this stage of their respective stints at Anfield, though it’s not saying much. The Italian sits in the same precarious position as those two did, with either outcome seemingly just as likely. His early struggles share more in common with Keane; an injury-ravaged strike partner burdening too much responsibility onto their own shoulders, and a manager who doesn’t appear committed to show the faith that Crouch was afforded.
Like Crouch, Balotelli works best when given a partner, or at least midfield runners who are happy to play off him. It takes time for players to adapt to these types of strikers, too often in his early days at Liverpool Crouch was left isolated up top, holding the ball up for no one in particular because they were all stood 20 yards away – Balotelli could relate to that. But the understanding developed, and in time it flourished.
Time, though, is no guarantee of success; it is not the elixir of life, the potion to heal all ills. But it kickstarted Peter Crouch’s Liverpool career. Balotelli could become the effective secondary weapon that Crouch became later in his Anfield career, but for now he is a Plan B player in a team suddenly missing its Plan A. Without Sturridge, the last remaining bridge to their swaggering and fast-footed attacking football from last year, they can’t adapt to anything else; ironically, after commentators spent the final weeks of last season telling Liverpool that they needed a Plan B, they now have more Plan Bs and no Plan A.
The application is there for Balotelli, no matter what his detractors have said about his start to the season, but the collective must improve – manager included – in order to improve the individual.