Mario Balotelli possesses so much talent, but the detriments he can bring on and off the pitch bring about an aura of fear.
So how does Brendan Rodgers fit the bad boy who says he wants to become even badder, into a club that was supposedly worried about image problems just a few months ago?
With respect to personality, that is yet to be seen, but in terms of how the Italian can work his way into the team’s starting XI, it is worth speculating how he fits into the lineup.
Super Mario is the extra striker Rodgers wanted in his side before the summer transfer window shut. The Reds have a decent number of forwards in the team, especially with the versatility of Daniel Sturridge and the Plan B that is a true target man in Rickie Lambert. Loic Remy would have been a solid third option due to his poaching abilities and movement, but Balotelli comes as an interesting turn for the shape of Rodgers’ team. He can poach, hold up play, and be creative.
So it sounds great – Liverpool has three goal-scoring threats with different attributes that make them all differ, but at the same time, the question becomes, how can these guys all fit into the squad AND all be happy, in terms of playing time, all other things equal?
When Balotelli is on his game, nobody works harder, but when he gets frustrated, he can fade out of the match and everybody forgets he is on the pitch. The danger with his work rate is that it could trickle down. Luis Suarez’s tireless sprints up, down, and across the pitch led to Sturridge doing the same. Perhaps Sturridge has grown and the sprinting is engrained in the way he plays, but he must continue to work hard regardless of what Balotelli does.
In terms of formation, Rodgers was forced to play a two-striker system last season in an effort to keep his top players on the pitch together. They were able to form a fruitful partnership, but Sturridge forced a midfielder to be dropped from the XI.
Jordan Henderson, Lucas Leiva, Emre Can, and Steven Gerrard are the steel of the Reds’ midfield, while Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana, Lazar Markovic, and Raheem Sterling are the outfit’s electrifying attacking outlets.
So let’s look at some possible lineups that would include Balotelli.
In a 4-4-2, the Italian could play up top with Sturridge and drop back into midfield to support him. Balotelli receives the ball all over the pitch. His technical ability allows him to cut inside from the wings to curl the ball into the back of the net, or earn a foul for his team. Despite his size, Balotelli has quick feet that can earn the Reds a lot of fouls around the box. He receives lots of long balls too, so if the Reds opt for an attack at breakneck pace, the Italian is capable of holding up play and distributing to support.
The issue with all of these systems is the numbers in midfield. Of course, Manchester City played a flat 4-4-2 successfully last season, but that was with the help of two box-to-box midfielders of the highest quality in their prime. Liverpool will have Gerrard alongside Lucas, Henderson or Can. Gerrard can sprint to close down an opponent on occasion, but does not have the legs to cover a sizeable area for 90 minutes.
To tinker with the shape to compensate for Gerrard, Rodgers could deploy the lineup below, which notes defensive runs.
It would require Henderson to shift into the middle alongside the captain and a center midfielder (I’ve given the spot to Can here, but it could be Lucas or Allen). This adds numbers to the defense and is something the Reds had a jab at last season, because Sturridge is fit enough to track really far back defensively down the right hand side.
A diamond with Sterling or Coutinho at the tip — and two hard workers like Can and Henderson — would provide cover for Gerrard as it did in preseason.
Balotelli could play in a 4-4-1-1 with he and Sturridge switching rolls. This could be an option for a European fixture when Rodgers may opt for two of the more industrious center midfielders.
To play Balotelli as a lone striker, Rodgers could drop Sturridge out of the starting lineup completely or push him over to the right flank, where he often drops to gain possession of the ball anyway.
Balotelli would be able to fit into the 4-2-3-1, which he is familiar with from his times at Milan, below…
in addition to the 4-3-3 that the Reds tinkered with throughout preseason.
For Balotelli to fit into the squad, someone is going to have be dropped consistently and it is likely to be one of the creative talents that the Reds have come to depend on. If the Italian is content with being a squad rotation player, as opposed to a guaranteed starter, then Rodgers will have more flexibility when it comes to forming a competitive team.