Whether losing 3-0 to reigning European champions Real Madrid or held to a scoreless draw by Premier League side Hull City, there appears to be only one person at fault for Liverpool’s poor results this season – Mario Balotelli.
The ruling elite of British football punditry is formed by a clan of retired, trophy-laden Reds, ranging from resident Match of the Day analyst Mark Lawrenson to Sky Sports’ latest addition Jamie Carragher, and they seem to be losing little sleep over turning public opinion against a striker already short of confidence and form.
Carragher, for example, has already prophesised that Balotelli won’t be at Anfield next season, based on the evidence of just eight games. Lawrenson’s verdict on the 24 year-old’s performance against QPR, where he was unfortunate enough to miss an open goal, was simply that ‘there’s no ‘I’ in team’. Graeme Souness has audaciously questioned whether Balotelli, a Serie A, Premier League and Champions League-winning striker, has the vision to be a centre-forward at a club of Liverpool’s stature – a club that hasn’t won a league title since the 1980s.
And Phil Thompson wasted no time in dubbing the Italian international’s infamous half-time shirt-swap with Pepe ‘disgraceful’ on Twitter – never mind that Liverpool were already 3-0 down, Balotelli was about to be subbed off, and it was most likely the Real Madrid defender’s idea. After all, how many players in world football go around demanding Pepe’s shirt after he’s spent 90 minutes (or in this case, 45) kicking lumps out of their shins?
So why always Balotelli? Why has he become the scapegoat for the majority of Liverpool’s failings this term, many of which are out of his control?
Well, it’s easy to criticise a striker that isn’t scoring goals, especially one that comes with as many negative preconceptions as Mario Balotelli. The Italian international has hit the net just once in eight appearances for Liverpool, against Ludogrets in the Champions League – unquestionably the Reds’ weakest opponents so far this season – whilst his limited work-rate continues to infuriate Lawrenson, Carragher et. al.
But you wouldn’t criticise Roy Keane for his lack of dribbling ability. You wouldn’t criticise Jermain Defoe for not scoring enough headers. So why is Balotelli – a striker whose entire style of play is centred around a mercurial aloofness – being criticised for not running around enough? I don’t remember too many complaints about Dimitar Berbatov spending eight years in the Premier League without ever breaking a sweat.
And what dystopian version of the Premier League would that collective opinion eventually leave us with? One where every flair player of any individuality is forced into foreign leagues because they don’t cover the same distances as James Milner.
Balotelli’s lack of goals will be more disappointing to him than anybody and it’s been long forgotten that he claimed just eight league goals in his final six months at AC Milan, so he hardly arrived at Anfield in top form. Throughout Europe’s five leading top flights, only Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Aguero have averaged more attempts on goal per-match than Balotelli’s 4.6 this season, so it’s indisputable that he’s at least trying to break his Premier League duck.
The Italy international is hardly the first front-man to struggle for form at a new club; Luis Suarez found just 15 goals in his first 44 appearances for Liverpool, just as Edin Dzeko netted only 16 times in his first 45 outings for Manchester City. Unquestionably a form player, one goal could be all Balotelli needs to go on a free-scoring run, but constant criticism is hardly going to help his cause.
And although scoring goals has been an issue for Liverpool this season as Daniel Sturridge’s injury problems continue, more fundamental flaws at the other end of the pitch should be taking precedent. Dejan Lovren and Martin Skrtel are yet to click as a centre-back partnership, whilst the summer introductions of Javier Manquillo and Alberto Moreno means that three of Liverpool’s resident back four has changed since last season.
One world-class goal and poor marking at two set pieces is what cost Liverpool against Real Madrid – not Balotelli’s limited work-rate or wayward shooting as an eternally isolated figure in the final third.
Furthermore, in predecessor Luis Suarez, Balotelli has an impossible billing to live up to. The Uruguayan is one of the most clinical, hardest-working goal-scorers in world football, and there’s a reason Barcelona paid £52million more for his services than Liverpool did Balotelli’s. After all, we’re talking about a striker already deemed too hot to handle by Jose Mourinho, Roberto Mancini and Cesare Prandelli, yet to reach the 20 goal mark in any of his seven seasons as a senior.
So what were the pundits expecting? It seems everything – apart from the Mario Balotelli we’ve already witnessed at all of his former clubs. If they need someone to criticise, for criticism is essentially their job, it should be Brendan Rodgers.