Some Liverpool fans, as they read Brendan Rodgers' quotes about Mario Balotelli, will be doing so with a sad, fatalistic nodding of their heads, convinced of the absolute correctness of the Liverpool manager's position on the issue and lamenting the blunted purpose of our Italian striker's efforts. Another portion of them will be indignant at the presentation of the Irishman's words, framed as they have been beneath banner headlines which seem inflammatory, designed to rabble-rouse. Still others, will be taking a dark glee in seeing the man they have always considered to be an overly loquacious snake oil salesman apparently throwing one of his players under the bus. To them, this will be proof positive that the man is a self-interested charlatan, full of guff and bluster.
Of course, our opinions, no matter how extreme in either way are almost utterly irrelevant. The fact that an accurate representation of the reality is probably an odd combination of all of those viewpoints is neither here nor there because realistically, this powder keg of a story already has the capacity to cause untold discomfort within the Liverpool dressing room and negatively impact the already poor start to the season. The irony inherent in the whole thing is that despite the controversy over the manager's reference to Balotelli's signing as a "calculated gamble," the real risk lies in making those thoughts public. What will be the reaction of the notoriously prickly forward? Has Rodgers tossed a grenade into the blissful daily tranquillity of the Melwood training ground? Stay tuned for an unnecessarily dramatic episode...
Debate has built steadily, since Rodgers' most recent damning of Balotelli with faint praise, as to whether or not the manager ever really fancied the rangy attacker. The Antrim man's words betrayed a sense of last minute panic-buying. Like a frantic well-heeled shopper in the dying moments of the sale, he grabbed the flashy Armani blazer which was available at 66% off even though he knew in his heart he'd never really wear it because he was more of a utilitarian Barbour jacket man. The haute couture thing was all very well but, essentially, he knew henwas a tailored but casual, James Bond's day off kind of guy. Still, Rodgers would not accept that the thought process behind Balotelli's capture was faulty. It was, he insisted, an impossible situation and they did what they could. The implied comparison with the unavailable Divock Origi, however, only adds to the sense that Rodgers is a disappointed shopper.
"I wouldn’t say the strategy was flawed," he averred, not overly convincingly. "There are very few players who can replace Suarez, actually there are no players who can replace Suarez. When you look at the availability of other players during the summer it was something that was difficult for us. It’s no good now I know but we took a player in Divock Origi who we believe will be world class and we’ll get him next summer. He is a top player. He has everything - the speed, the profile and he can play now but our deal was that we couldn’t bring him in now. That was unfortunate because he can run in behind, he can keep the ball, he can press and he can run. I think there were very few who are top class who were available and Mario Balotelli was a calculated gamble that we had to try and work with.
"It was about availability and affordability of players," he continued, warming to his theme. "Mario was the one right at the very end who was available for that. You analyse and assess what the group had. We brought Rickie Lambert in as someone who can play some games for us and come off the bench and be an impact player for us. Daniel Sturridge is a top Premier League player but he has shown during his time here that he does get injuries so we needed to prepare for that. Obviously Fabio Borini looked like he was on his way out. We had attempts for other strikers that didn’t materialise for one reason or another so it left us right at the end of the window with a decision of whether just to go with what we had, when experience told us we were well too light, or to take a calculated risk on a player who has quality and then could we get it out of him consistently?"
Oh dear. This really isn't coming over as rampant enthusiasm, is it? When one considers how strongly Rodgers has defended and promoted certain players and when one ponders his normally liberal use of superlatives, poor Mario is not emerging awfully well. Why has the manager chosen to be so clearly critical in his assessment? Why emphasise the uncertainty of the move's success so early in the day by referring to the tonsorially extravagant attacker as a "calculated risk" twice and a "calculated gamble" once in the space of a solitary interview? Is he really that eager to distance himself from Balotelli? Note how he stresses the work he will personally have to do to mould the wayward talent of the Italian. There is a pungent whiff here of the kind of political machinations that plagued the dog days of Rafa Benitez's tenure.
"I said when he came in that it was a calculated risk and it’s something I have to work on to try to make it work for the team," said the Anfield gaffer. "The boy is consciously trying to work hard at the aspects of the game which we demand here in terms of his intensity and work-rate. In terms of goals, he needs to improve, it’s as simple as that. Any striker is judged by goals and the number of assists he makes. At this moment he hasn’t had the numbers he would have wanted. You need to get yourself in the right areas. I always encourage strikers to get in front of the framework of the goal for when the ball comes in from wide areas. You want them to break the lines and get in there. Yes, it’s about the service and our quality in the final third wasn’t up to standard but you have to be able to create and score goals yourself. Obviously he didn’t do that."
Obviously, indeed. With Liverpool heading into a ludicrously over-important match this weekend, a game that many rational types have dubbed a must-win match, the manager's words seem impolitic at best, ill-judged at worst. To date, Brendan Rodgers, with his own unique combination of self-regard and humility, has brought Liverpool to unexpected heights with an equally unexpected expediency. He is entitled to some faith and yet he cannot be above fair criticism. Sadly, should his developing side fail to register a victory at the weekend, the likelihood of even-handedness will disappear. Rodgers is right. He has taken a gamble. How effective his calculations are remains to be seen.