LIVERPOOL, England – There was a moment, in the second minute of Liverpool’s defeat to Real Madrid on Wednesday that seemed to sum up the issue with Mario Balotelli.
Marcelo had been dispossessed and the ball came to the Italian. Real’s defense wasn’t set, and there seemed to be a genuine chance, the sort of rapid breakaway attack that so characterized Liverpool at its best last season. Balotelli half-stumbled, started to run, never really got going, and, with Raheem Sterling hurtling through to his left, was soon dispossessed by the back-tracking Marcelo.
It was the second time he’d been cheaply dispossessed, eyes to the ground, in the first 90 seconds. On the touchline, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers rocked back on his heels and shook his head. When he’d berated Balotelli in the game against Queens Park Rangers on Sunday, after the forward had remained bent over on the halfway line, hand to his ear after taking a blow from Richard Dunne rather than tracking back, he had claimed he was generally frustrated rather than specifically irritated at the striker. On this occasion, there was little ambiguity about the gesture. And his frustration was understandable.
That opportunity was just the sort of thing Liverpool is good at. Marcelo is a player who can be caught on the ball high up the field, as he was repeatedly in Brazil’s 7-1 defeat to Germany in the World Cup semifinal. Rodgers had almost certainly targeted him. The plan had come together. The use of Sterling down the center, his pace aimed at Pepe and Raphael Varane, meant Liverpool was primed for that sort of transition. And then Balotelli ran down a blind alley. And didn’t even run down it that quickly. And that was pretty much it for Balotelli.
There was one nice take-down and lay off, but that aside he was the embodiment of dissatisfaction. There was a pass to nowhere, followed by an angrily wafted hand at Sterling. There were a lot of head-down runs that went nowhere. When he was taken off for Adam Lallana at halftime, it was no great surprise.
“I needed more movement centrally to occupy their center halves and I felt Raheem Sterling's speed would give us that,” said Rodgers, in what appeared a backhanded criticism of Balotelli. “In the second half you could see every player pressing and working – for us that's the minimum. Lallana came on and did it very well.”
To make matters worse, Balotelli swapped shirts with Pepe at halftime, one of those relatively trivial actions guaranteed to enrage large sections of the public for the lack of focus on the game it appears to imply. Whether it really is a hugely significant issue is debatable, but what is undeniable is that it has added fuel to the flames.
“I had a similar incident last year and it was dealt with internally,” said Rodgers. “It's exactly the same. I heard about it when I came off pitch. If you want to do that, it's something you do at end of the game and something I will deal with.”
The player in question last season was Mamadou Sakho, who swapped shirts with Samuel Eto’o, then at Chelsea. Sakho has looked notably disengaged since and left Anfield before kickoff after being left out of the derby against Everton last month. The danger is Balotelli goes the same way, if he has not already done so.
He has become the focus of multiple problems. It was always going to be difficult for Liverpool to find a way to play without Luis Suarez and that process has been made more difficult with Daniel Sturridge’s injury. Balotelli is noted for his pace, but, whether through lack of speed of thought or unfamiliarity with the system, he has not yet been able to use that to contribute to those driving transitions that Liverpool were so good at last season.
There are more general doubts about how the Suarez money has been spent: none of the new signings have yet really imposed themselves: Balotelli is the most visible of them. At the same time, Liverpool’s defending hasn’t improved at all since last season, and it looks vulnerable at every corner it faces. Last season the goals of Suarez and Sturridge disguised that; this season the laxity is exposed.
Balotelli is struggling and the swagger that makes him so engaging when things are going well becomes an irritant when they are not. He’s the low-hanging fruit it’s easy to condemn when there are many other problems. The huge concern is that history suggests he does not respond well to criticism. Balotelli has almost visibly lost confidence since his debut against Tottenham and Rodgers seems to be losing patience.
He speaks of Balotelli’s work rate but after the QPR game he also said “he is really focusing on making sure that he is concentrating and preparing right,” a convoluted formulation that suggested Balotelli is some way from playing or even training as he would like. Perhaps when Sturridge is back –which could be several weeks yet – and the pressure is lessened, Balotelli can settle, but for now he looks a player weighed down by burden of being the collective scapegoat.
To an extent he has brought that on himself, but Balotelli is only part of the problem.