I wake up to the garish caress of the sun and a buzzing in my ear. It's Monday and I'm not sure where I am, but as the buzzing won't stop I suppose I'll have to give in to it eventually. I force my eyes open against the wishes of my pounding head. It's been over two weeks since I nabbed Injury - only to watch him walk out of a court room thanks to some slick lawyering. Now I'm in a hotel room I don't recognize, out on the West Side, and about the only thing I'm sure of as my vision clears and the frayed carpet and stained curtains resolve themselves is that this room isn't made for sunny mornings any more than I am.
Picking up the phone seems my only option. My mouth scrapes and mumbles, tongue more intent on turning over the taste of something dead at least a week than formulating coherent sounds, but in the end I manage something resembling a greeting. An old, familiar voice comes back.
"AJ, it's me, Q," says Ian.
"Ian," I say, "how many times have I told you to drop the code name? Just tell me what you've got."
"It's another case," he says. "One of our strikers seems to have lost his memory..."
He trails off and I can hear a grown man making motorcycle noises in the background. I manage to get his attention, and he tells me he's already sent the details. I tell him I'll check, but the motorcycle noises are back and I doubt he hears me. I've got another case to crack.
Ian's email is straightforward enough:
Victim: Mario Balotelli. Since signing with Liverpool, the forward has only scored twice in all competitions and seems to have lost his identity, operating as a playmaker in the center of the pitch.
It seems my job is to figure out how to jog his memory in time to keep the LFC keyboard warriors from pulling their metaphorical knives out.
The case vexes me as I review tape of the best of his recent performances, starting with the second half of last weekend's match against Hull City. The movement and skill are all there on offer, but the final product is missing. Fitness doesn't appear to be a concern, with pace, strength, and skill all on show as he completes a full 90 minutes, nearly netting the winner at the death. And yet, when on the pitch, he continues to sag deep and show the propensity to make runs at a defense as opposed to being a traditional target-man.
Something's not adding up. A pounding at my door snaps the world back into focus and leaves me to staring at a sealed package at my doorstep but no soul in sight. Inside, a glossy 8x10 of Rickie Lambert and an old VHS tape. I'm intrigued. I also haven't seen a VCR in years, though a quick glance around the room reveals an ancient television on the dresser, complete with a rectangular slot below its screen. One advantage of a room that's been left to decay since the Premier League was formed, then, at least on this occasion.
I fire up the tape and it becomes clear that the introduction of Rickie Lambert does seem to coincide with a positive uptick in the offensive performance, Balotelli included. No, the 24-year-old Italian doesn't suddenly change his style or work to find new angles of attack. Rather, he continues to take up many of the same spaces as before, but now there is someone to fill the spot in front of the opposition center-backs, clearing space for those runs and allowing him to eventually contribute a great chance near the end - a cross from the left of goal, across the face in the box - as well as to get into spaces that gave him a look at goal.
The FourFourTwo chalkboard for the second half of Hull City also reveals something else: Balotelli seems to be more at ease cutting in from the left onto his right foot. Coupling this along with the tactical change, it's clear that Balotelli is not suited to the lone striker role - not because he isn't a striker, but because he very well could be suited to featuring as a wide forward.
Looking at Balotelli's attributes, it's clear that he likes to turn and face a high line. He also likes to attack open space and cut onto his stronger foot to create shots for himself or teammates. With his pace, technique and vision, he might even be the answer to how Brendan Rodgers can get two strikers on the pitch without playing two up top - put Balo wide left in an attacking three. And though his presence on the left could leave that flank exposed or create a tactical imbalance, forcing the midfield to focus on the space behind him to prevent counter attacks, it would at least allow him to use all of his tools to the best of his ability.
It's not that Balotelli has forgotten how to be a striker, it's that he never really was. Or at the very least that he was never a true, line-leading center forward - it's Brendan, not Mario, whose memory appears to need jogging. The evening light, far more forgiving to the worst flaws of the old hotel room, is quickly fading as I send my findings off to Ian. If he's done making motorcycle noises, hopefully he can get them where they need to go in time for it to make a difference.
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