It was no surprise, to see that prior to last night’s game at Anfield, TalkSport’s pitch side summariser, reported that Mario Balotelli had been removed from the pitch and asked to leave by Mike Marsh (Liverpool coach) for being so disruptive during the warm up. It was also no surprise to see, that all references to the incident on TalkSport social media sites and the reporters own media channel had been removed before the end of the game when it was shown that he had, in fact, turned his ankle and gone back inside as a precaution. The blood lust for this guy’s head has become insatiable.
Now cast your mind back just over two years. Euro 2012 semi final and a 21-year- old 6ft 2in striker with incredible pace, power and equal quantities of technique, terrorises a German defence, who having been one of the pre-tournament favourites, went on to win this year’s World Cup. Granted, he was perceived to be lazy, selfish and being completely honest, extremely arrogant, but my goodness, what a player. This, is Mario Balotelli
In truth, nothing much has changed. He still possesses all those magnificent football abilities which made him almost impossible to handle throughout that tournament and the Azzuri’s march to the final. And he still has that highly publicised negative side which apparently gives anyone and everyone licence to vilify, however, I’m willing to bet, there are other high profile signings and first team regulars in the Liverpool line-up who aren’t exactly pulling their weight either, but are happy to have him take the brunt of the criticism.
Last season, it is also very important to understand the impact of a certain Luis Suarez. You have to consider that the quality and precision of Suarez’s runs, his penetrative movement and exuberance, were all the qualities of a top, top player. He also extended the longevity of Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool career by two seasons because the craft and intelligence of his runs allowed Gerrard to free himself from the holding midfield role he had developed to prolong his time at the top. Is this a season too far for Stevie G, now that the legs are a year older and there is no Suarez dynamism to stretch defences and allow him to get further up the pitch?
I’m not sure, but I don’t see many pundits questioning Lallana, Can, Borini, Moreno or Johnson either, or dare I say it, the aforementioned Gerrard.
Unfortunately for Liverpool, they have found, that even at £75million, someone of that quality is irreplaceable.
So why always Mario?
Well the bottom line at the moment is he’s not playing well, but to answer that question, it’s important to examine tactically and psychologically why Brendan Rodgers would have brought in Balotelli. Having lost Suarez in the summer and having the none-too-insignificant amount of £75million to dispose of, he needed not only a replacement for Suarez but also a partner for Sturridge. Someone with pace and strength to complement Sturridge’s very obvious qualities. Someone who could stretch defences, who could bully defenders and hold play up to allow Sturridge the freedom to be the predatory striker. And with a goalscoring record in the EPL, Serie A and International football of better than one every three games. That man was Balotelli. On the face of it, at £16million, it didn’t even seem like a huge risk.
But of course, there’s the small problem of Mario himself, a self destruct button and an ego that constantly needs massaged. In my experience, those type of ‘maverick’ players, the most outwardly extrovert, whether at the top level or not, are usually the ones with most to hide. It’s almost always a mask, a front if you like, to hide mental frailties that strike so much fear that they are about to be exposed as a fraud and, that their public persona is nothing other than an alter ego. They need care and attention if you want to get the best out of them, not a public flogging. We had one at Dundee, a big player for us with a big ego and a big presence to match, but do you know what, he was never out of the office looking for that arm around him, waiting for his fragility to be hardened by the immortal pick-me-up; “You’re our best player.”
But as a manager or coach, you ALWAYS back yourself, you always think that you can be the man to turn that player around and get the best from him. It’s the reason why so many of those types of player are signed by clubs time and again, because they all want to be the one. And if you are, you know how good a player you have on your hands.
I’ve also been fortunate over the years to have attended many SFA coaching seminars and lectures by some of the most experienced managers in the game. On one occasion we were being regaled by Walter Smith on the joys of coaching and managing top players. To our amazement, Walter told us that at that stage, he rarely did any coaching because with top players and their egos it was all about managing them. Sure, Archie Knox would put on terrific drills, sessions and crossing and finishing exercises, but if Trevor Steven went to the by-line to put in a cross, you didn’t have to tell McCoist to go to the front post and Hateley to the back. You didn’t have to tell Gazza to support the edge of the box and McCall to sit. They just did it. It was about managing personalities and people. I wonder if the Liverpool manager has considered asking Walter how he dealt with Gazza. But I don’t think he would ever have allowed ANYONE to decry his players so publicly as many have done with Balotelli.
Whilst at Oxford United as a trainee, I had experience of the psychological frailties of strikers. Lacking confidence – though certainly not outwardly – and in need of a goal after a barren spell, John Aldridge asked to play in a reserve game. It was a game we were expected to win and Aldridge saw it as an opportunity to score and maybe set himself off on a goalscoring run again. As it happened, we got a penalty about 10 minutes into the second half which Aldridge duly dispatched. He was taken off minutes later to preserve him for the first team match on the Saturday and within six months was sold to Liverpool (of all teams) for £1million.
So, does the answer to Balotelli’s mental discrepancies lie in a simple reserve match. Will a goal against Bury reserves solve all the perceived problems and set Mario back on the road to top level greatness? Probably not. But it gives you an idea of the psychological issues when dealing with top players.
So at what point, as referred to in previous blogs, does the striker’s influence who, is not only not playing well, but is seen as disruptive, become detrimental to team spirit and the other players start to resent his presence? Well, that’s one for the Liverpool manager to judge I’m afraid. But if I were him, I’d be looking for a way to get the best out of him for the team, before it becomes a major issue.
While he doesn’t help himself with his antics and persistent inconsistencies, it also has to be considered if there are more sinister forces at work here. Are the Liverpool hierarchy gathering their punditry allies in defence of the manager and pointing the finger at a more easily dispensed target instead? It seems an enormous coincidence that, with the team not performing particularly well, certain players are being targeted for individual criticism from the comfort of their Sky Sports/Match of the Day chairs, and not the manager. As always, some of them really should know better. They might be just as well served defending ALL of their ex-teams’ players, rather than just the chosen few, instead of sharpening the knives for the easy targets. I know one thing for certain, Balotelli must change some of his ways in order to help himself, but a constant battering from pundits and supporters alike, will ensure that regaining his form AND confidence will be a slow process which, without the unswerving support of his club and manager, could well be a terminal one.
So after a disappointing 1 winner from 3 selections last week, the least said about Paul Ritchie’s tips the better. This weeks Guest Tipster is my pal, grammar policeman and Northern League betting expert Paul McGeary. His three selections are Clyde (4to5) to beat Spartans, East Fife (13to10) to beat Berwick and Hamilton (10to11) to beat Partick for a 7/1 treble. I’ll put £10 on the selections and If an Englishman is the first to get the Guest Tipster slot treble up from three Scottish matches, i’ll donate the winnings to a charity of his choice. Good luck Paul
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