Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but even when Liverpool’s £16million swoop for Mario Balotelli was just an audacious transfer rumour – one that Brendan Rodgers initially ‘categorically’ denied – nothing about it really made sense.
After all, we’re talking about the same Mario Balotelli that Jose Mourinho dubbed ‘unmanageable’ during their time together at Inter Milan, that Roberto Mancini publicly admitted he wanted to ‘punch in the head’, and almost did during a training ground bust-up in the prelude to his Manchester City departure, that AC Milan wanted to sell almost as soon as they’d bought him.
The 24 year-old seems like a nice enough fellow, even when he’s swapping shirts at half-time, but his professionalism is well…non-existent and he’s hardly what you’d describe as a manager’s dream. This isn’t exclusive knowledge; to quote one pundit, he’s “a strange phenomenon – champagne corks pop when he arrives and again when he leaves.”
It’s not just the Italy international’s child-trapped-in-an-elite-footballer’s-body-mentality that raised question marks. Barcelona-bound Luis Suarez, through his intensity, tenacity, quality and speed, came to epitomise everything about Liverpool last season, especially going forward.
In polarised contrast, Balotelli, an eternally illusive, mercurial and often static figure on the pitch, actively defies the industriously expansive philosophy that brought the Reds to new heights under Rodgers last year. Variation is important in any squad, but not when it’s so alien to a club’s mentality and style.
Then there’s Balotelli’s goal tally. Despite being long considered as amongst Europe’s front-man elite, the 6 foot 2 striker has never actually scored twenty goals in a single campaign. His best return in any league from his seven seasons at senior level was 14 goals for AC Milan last year, whilst his overall career record is a worryingly uninspiring 90 in 233. Hardly evidence to suggest Balotelli could replace the firepower of PFA and FWA award winner Suarez, who scored just eight less goals than the Italian’s career haul during 133 appearances for the Anfield side.
So why did Liverpool buy Mario Balotelli? Perhaps for marketing purposes? The Italian has a huge media profile and is the kind of signing that could make the Reds exceptionally popular with certain sponsors – not to mention the added revenues of world-wide shirt sales.
Or maybe it was a simple case of huge risk bringing even bigger reward? Although Balotelli comes with more baggage than most and his goalscoring record is decisively ordinary, he’s shown glimpses of world-class talent before. If Liverpool could help him produce that on a consistent basis, their £16million investment would go down in the history books as one of the greatest transfer scoops of all time.
Or a slightly more sinister theory; was it a Brendan Rodgers vanity project? A walking, talking, goalscoring example of how all those positive quotes and confusing similes can turn even the most uncontrollable of footballers into a world-class star.
Perhaps that’s a rather insulting notion, but you can imagine the Liverpool gaffer’s thought process; “I kept Luis Suarez under control for two years, barring a few bites of a few defenders’ shoulders, maybe I can do the same with Mario Balotelli. Maybe I’m the Premier League’s bad-boy specialist. Maybe I should sign Joey Barton as well.”
Rodgers has an interesting relationship with Jose Mourinho too, having spent part of his coaching career under the Chelsea boss as one of the club’s academy coaches, before moving on to manage the reserve squad. He’s yet to beat the Special One in a Premier League fixture, so perhaps the Liverpool manager eyed the opportunity for psychological advantage by succeeding where Mourinho hadn’t in taming Balotelli. The Premier League management racket is filled by intriguing, personal subplots like that.
Even if Rodgers’ vanity wasn’t focused on his own man-management abilities, I still struggle to comprehend why he thought moving to Liverpool would transform Balotelli into something more dependable.
He’s played for two of the biggest clubs in Italy, the Italian national team and one of the biggest clubs in England without ever showing conviction to change, so why would Anfield, for all its history, prestige and militant supporters, suddenly hit the striker like the berating of a chav on Jeremy Kyle, providing the enlightening realisation that his career’s currently heading only one way?
Liverpool is certainly a unique club, but it’s no more unique than San Siro-sharing outfits, one of which the 24 year-old has supported since childhood, or two-time Premier League winners Manchester City. Why would putting on a Reds jersey suddenly bring about wholesale changes in Balotelli’s character? Why would it stop Balotelli being Balotelli?
Of course, it goes without saying that neither moving to Anfield nor the influence of Brendan Rodgers has produced a more mature, potential-fulfilling Mario. He’s still got the mind of a child. He’s still work-shy. He’s still bringing negative attention to both himself and his employers, the most recent instance coming in the form of a bizarre retweet of a racist comic book sketch. He’s still playing for himself, rather than the team.
There was clearly no plan when signing Balotelli. Impulse took over both Rodgers and Liverpool – the opportunity to excel with an individual where others with larger transfer budgets and salaries had continually failed. Just months later, without a Premier League goal in sight, Brendan Rodgers’ vanity project already needs an exit strategy.