Brendan Rodgers’ spell Liverpool manager has been embroiled with difficult personal challenges.
Only last season, when the Reds staged a surprise charge for the Premier League title, did he truly gain the faith of the Anfield fanbase, all the while not spending more than £20million on a single transfer.
In the process, he’s transformed a Liverpool squad of overpriced, underachieving mercenaries into one of the most promising, progressive and value-for-money rosters in recent Mersey history. The Ulsterman’s most testing personal triumph thus far? Keeping Luis Suarez, despite the public relations disaster of the 2013 Confederations Cup, at the club a year longer than initially seemed possible.
But now Rodgers faces his biggest challenge to date in the form of Mario Balotelli, a striker dubbed unmanagable by Jose Mourinho in 2010 and sold by Manchester City in January 2013 after coming to blows with then Etihad boss Robert Mancini.
Reports of a £16million deal for the AC Milan star emerged last week, and he’s now expected to be named an official Liverpool player on Tuesday.
You can envisage the Liverpool gaffer’s light bulb moment. Less than a month ago, he ‘categorically told’ reporters in Los Angeles ‘that Balotelli would not be at Liverpool next season’. Since then, the idea has clearly lingered in Rodgers’ mind. ‘I did a good job keeping Suarez on a leash – perhaps I could do the same for Balotelli.’ It’s a justified rationale.
All the more considering that £16million is an exceptionally reasonable fee for a striker on the fringes of the European elite. Balotelli, although a volatile personality who has never scored more than twenty goals in a single season, has been threatening to take the footballing world by storm for some time through occasional displays of his incredible natural quality.
Now 24 years of age on the verge of joining his fourth major club, the Italy international’s Liverpool move could instigate a new sense of consistency to his game. Even if he can replicate his role in Manchester City’s 2012 Premier League title, or go some way to filling Luis Suarez’ goalscoring void, Balotelli will largely be viewed as a successful acquisition for the Mersey outfit. After all, the Reds’ long relationship with top quality strikers, through thick-and-thin, must always be maintained.
Yet Suarez and Balotelli are incredibly different animals. Equally detrimental at their worst, but polar opposites in terms of personality.
The Uruguayan’s pivotal flaw, for example, is a sense of over-competitiveness. He dives, fouls and of course, sporadically bites people, to try and have some influence on the match in his team’s favour. Suarez’s work-rate, for a striker so talented, is exceptional, and his condemned actions are an extreme manifestation of that.
He burst into tears when Liverpool drew to Crystal Palace, effectively ending their title hopes, at the end of last season. In short, motivating the now-Barcelona star was never the challenge for Brendan Rodgers – rather, it was keeping his desire to win within the rules of the game.
Indeed, Suarez’s work ethic came to typify Liverpool last season. The Anfield side played some sensational football but it was backed up by arguably the hardest working midfield and strikeforce in the league. Few could match the likes of Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling, Steven Gerrard and Suarez in terms of pure industriousness and Rodgers has taken active steps to maintain that theme for the current season, having brought in Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Alberto Moreno and Emre Can this summer, four players equally famed for committed and assiduous styles.
But getting Balotelli to buy into that ethos will be a monumental challenge within itself. In direct contrast to Suarez, the 24 year-old’s biggest failing – with the exception of essentially being a child trapped in the body of a top-class striker – is his lack of team spirit.
Even amid the most historic of wins or the most sensational of moments, there’s a persistent, unshakable feeling that Balotelli is doing it all for himself, rather than for his club or colleagues. Submerging the Italian into the all-for-one Liverpool mantra and getting him to parallel it through his own performances will be Rodgers’ toughest test.
Failing to do so, and it won’t be long before Balotelli sticks out like a sore thumb on Merseyside – the collective Liverpool personality under Rodgers does not facilitate for passengers, regardless of their quality, and should the Italian become one, a rift will quickly emerge between himself and the rest of the squad.
If Suarez needed a leash, Balotelli needs a bone. Although he foten brought Liverpool’s reputation into disrepute, one could never question the Uruguayan’s dedication – the prevailing problem was that on several occasions, it materialised in poor taste.
Balotelli, on the other hand, is like a teenager, refusing to commit to anything, determined to be his own island, as if doing otherwise would be decisively ‘uncool’. Whether Brendan Rodgers can find that added incentive, where the likes of Jose Mourinho and Roberto Mancini – two of the most respected managers in Europe – have failed, remains to be seen.
But perhaps the Mersey boss can find an avenue in the fact this will likely be Balotelli’s final opportunity to fail at a major club. In truth, the Italian needs Liverpool as much as they need him, to change the direction of a career that’s only moved backwards since that unforgettable moment at the end of the 2011/12 season.
If Rodgers can tap into that, billing Liverpool as a platform to catch the attention of Real Madrid, Barcelona et al, the clubs a striker of Balotelli’s natural talents should be playing with, in a similar manner to how Anfield went on to serve Luis Suarez, then perhaps the 24 year-old will find the renewed personal motivation he desperately needs.