In a world of slight variations on the customary 4-5-1 formation European football now finds itself in, the role of the front-man, and subsequently, the dependency upon him to regularly contribute to the goal tally, is perhaps more intrinsically vital than it’s ever previously been.
But unfortunately for the English top flight, world-class front-men have been slipping though its grasp for some time.
Last summer, the Premier League lost out on Radamel Falcao and Edinson Cavani, joining Monaco and PSG respectively for near-identical £54million fees. Likewise, after much deliberation from Arsenal, Gonzalo Higuain was snapped up by Napoli for £37million, while Carlos Tevez, Mario Gomez, Fernando Llorente and Giuseppe Rossi also made the switch the Serie A.
In January 2014, the much sought-after Robert Lewandowski announced intentions to switch his Bundesliga allegiances from Borussia Dortmund to Bayern Munich via a bosman move at the end of the season. Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema has just penned a new deal at the Bernabeu, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is widely expected to stay at PSG for at least another year, and Atletico Madrid’s Diego Costa is on the verge of signing his second contract extension of the season.
Indeed, for all of the Premier League’s almighty, unrivalled wealth, its flagship striker-hungry clubs could be left facing bitter disappointment this summer purely due to the market’s lack of adequate supply.
But could the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham be thrown a saving grace in the form of AC Milan striker Mario Balotelli?
The Italian badboy’s wild antics are well-known and widely documented, but amid the scarcity of conceivable alternatives – barring a Financial-Fair-Play-bending attempt to lure Radamel Falcao away from his French tax haven – Balotelli could be perhaps described as a necessary evil.
Jose Mourinho dubbed the 23 year-old ‘unmanageable’ during their time together at Inter Milan, and it’s not hard to understand why.
Here’s just one anecdote from the Special One himself to give some insight into how burdensome the Italian international’s naughty streak can be; “Mario got a yellow card in the 42nd minute, so when I got to the dressing room at half-time I spend about 14 minutes of the 15 available speaking only to Mario.
“I said to him: ‘Mario, I cannot change you, I have no strikers on the bench, so don’t touch anybody and play only with the ball. If we lose the ball, no reaction. If someone provokes you, no reaction, if the referee makes a mistake, no reaction. The 46th minute – red card!”
Roberto Mancini suffered a similar problem at Manchester City. After several dressing room bust-ups and a variety of absurd off-field incidents, ranging from writing off a newly-bought sports car just a matter of days after joining the Premier League side to throwing darts at Citizens youth players as a ‘prank’, the Italian gaffer reached the end of his tether in 2012 and nearly came to blows with Balotelli.
At the same time, the AC Milan forward was planning to take City to a Premier League tribunal over a fine for his poor disciplinary record, having missed a near-ridiculous 11 games of the 2011/2012 campaign through suspension. A few months later, he was sent packing to the San Siro in a cut-price deal.
Yet, regardless of the immense distraction Balotelli can be for his managers, in terms of quality and potential there are few better strikers in world football. A return of 24 goals in 35 league appearances since returning to Serie A and twelve goals in 29 outings on the international scene is evidence enough of the 23 year-old’s netting prowess.
More than just a goal machine however, Balotelli is an incredibly natural, imaginative and seemingly fearless footballer; we are yet to witness anything the Italian can’t do with the ball at his feet and – drawing parallels with the master of the super-ego, Zlatan Ibrahimovic – this unique ability to conjure up the unexpected, and often unthinkable, is sourced from the same arrogance that makes Balotelli such a mercurial, uncontrollable figure.
Furthermore, unlike Cavani, Benzema, Lewandowski et al., the chances of Balotelli jumping ship to the Premier League this summer are comparatively high. Despite AC Milan being his boyhood club, Rossoneri owner Silvio Berlusconi has never seen eye-to-eye with the troublesome striker and was reportedly prepared to sell him for profit in the January window.
At the same time, it’s believed the racial issues in Italian football deeply disturb the former City forward, understandably so considering Berlusconi’s brother and club vice president, Mario, referred to Balotelli as ‘the little black boy’ just a week after he returned to the San Siro.
And with the AC Milan house seemingly falling apart at the foundations – they’ve plummeted to eleventh in the Serie A table this season – a number of tabloids have made the logical assumption that the Italian international will ditch Diavolo in the summer for the sake of Champions League football. Similarly, due to the Italian’s adoration for controversy, his price-tag probably wouldn’t exceed the £30million mark – significantly cheaper than the aforementioned alternatives.
You can’t imagine Balotelli’s arrogance going down to well in the Arsenal camp; even the drunken antics of Nicklas Bentdner in the heart of Copenhagen are too much for Arsene Wenger to handle.
But as the Gunners face another wasted campaign after their subduing 6-0 defeat to Chelsea, perhaps a character of mischief and misdemeanour, the kind of player who could generate a reaction in his team-mates, is exactly the injection of dynamism they need. If there’s one thing Arsenal have proved from their eight-year trophy drought, it’s that nice guys finish last. Or should that be nice guys finish fourth?
At Chelsea, the question will be whether Jose Mourinho believes Balotelli has matured enough to the point where he can be effectively controlled, at least to a more professional extent than before. The Italy international’s recent ‘news boots’ incident – in which he wore a pair of boots covered in news headlines about himself during a Serie A fixture – suggests he hasn’t mellowed out quite just yet.
But both Chelsea and Arsenal can’t survive another season competing for the Premier League title without a bona fide, reliable goalscorer within their ranks. And as much as Balotelli can be an incredibly burdensome influence in and around the dressing room, that is essentially the only reason he’ll be available this summer whilst other world-class front-men are not.
As with any mercurial presence, the ends will have to justify the means. If Balotelli’s goals can make Arsenal anything more than fourth-place custodians, or alternatively provide the missing piece of an otherwise complete Chelsea jigsaw, then Wenger and Mourinho will be prepared to accept the 23 year-old’s dark side as part of the parcel.
Before Balotelli gets the opportunity to prove his worth however, one of his Premier League suitors will have to take the gamble. High stakes could mean high rewards – call it a gut reaction or blogger’s intuition, but after two years of turbulence at Manchester City and 18 months in the footballing wilderness at AC Milan, the next major move of Balotelli’s career could be the one that goes on to define him.