It is with great regret that I have come to the conclusion that Mario Balotelli is without much hope of a Liverpool future. This isn't some wondrous revelation or perceptive conclusion, just an unfortunate acceptance of the way things are. As someone who rates Balotelli highly as a character and talent, it is difficult to write this. Out of all the summer signings, Lazar Marković was my favourite closely followed by Emre Can. However, neither captured my imagination quite like Mario Balotelli.
This was a signing that resurrected memories of favourite quotes from Peter Pan: "the moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it." There was a stream of verbose musings on what Mario Balotelli could bring to the club on how great a risk the mercurial Italian international would be, and discussing whether this was the club where he'd finally demonstrate that Super Mario belonged in the real world as well as the virtual one. Something beautiful was about to begin in the dying days of August 2014, and I couldn't stop writing about it.
February has arrived, and the signs aren't particularly auspicious for Mario Balotelli's prospects at Liverpool. He turns 25 in August, and that simply means he can find form and improvement in the coming years. This isn't an exercise in ruminating on a talent thrown to the wolves of time. If Mario Balotelli leaves Liverpool in the summer, he can certainly find success elsewhere. However, two goals in 18 appearances and a hail of shots cannot be characterised as even the mildest or most mediocre of successes. To date, the move to Liverpool has not worked out for the man accustomed to wearing the number 45 on his back. One goal in the Champions League and another in the Capital One Cup. That's it. Not a single assist or goal in 760 minutes of Premier League action from 8 starts and 4 substitute appearances.
Brendan Rodgers is generally not one for changing or rotating in the second half of the season. Once a tactical formula is found, and a line-up is trusted, it will be utilised as much as possible in the pursuit of success. In the first season, the goal was a belated, if unlikely, push for a Champions League place with a brief taste of European knock-out action. In the second, it was an unexpected title challenge where win after win increased both hopes and expectations of a thirsty Red following. This season, there are many campaigns that demand Rodgers' attention for this month, possibly beyond. If Liverpool wish to count on FA Cup action next month, a trip to Crystal Palace must be more successful than the offerings served up last year. The Europa League offers a chance of silverware and entrance to Europe's grandest continental competition, but can Liverpool best a Besiktas side that troubled both Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur?
The biggest concern is the Premier League, where Liverpool remain in the chase for a top four place. Goal difference dictates that Liverpool need to gain five points on both Southampton and Arsenal, but the increased quality of opposition over the next four league games is of greater concern than goal difference. Everton, Tottenham, Southampton, and Manchester City are not easy opponents. Mario Balotelli is not the striker who offers hope that Liverpool can continue to progress this month; Daniel Sturridge is the talismanic force who can potentially transform the season into one of relative success. It is the return of a striker with 33 goals and 10 assists in 47 league games (40 starts). Luis Suárez has gone, but a frighteningly sharp striker is within the club's ranks. It may even surprise some that Agüero's record since Sturridge's arrival at Liverpool amounts to 35 goals and 10 assists in 53 league appearances (43 starts). The problem for both strikers is their respective fitness records.
Daniel Sturridge is back. He scored his 33rd league goal in just 12 minutes back on the pitch and underlined the inadequacy of Rickie Lambert, Fabio Borini, and Mario Balotelli. In fact, Raheem Sterling is proving to be more reliable in terms of goalscoring, movement, and understanding since deputising in the role of nine-and-a-half. Two goals in six starts in the Premier League and four in four domestic cup games. No penalties, no free-kicks, no lucky or scrappy goals. He may not be a natural striker, but he's more effective than any striker with the notable exception of Sturridge. Rickie Lambert was always going to be cheap backup, and Aston Villa's deadline day offer underlines how highly British talented is rated even in times of struggle. His contributions haven't been disastrous, nor would he be described as a successful purchase. Fabio Borini was the one who didn't want to stay away, but his enthusiasm and hustle can no longer mask a lack of quality for a club at this level.
Mario Balotelli's case is far more painful with his lack of movement and understanding of his role in relation to others. While Lambert is a static striker, his age, role, and transfer fee have firmly cast him in the role of veteran support. Fabio Borini is just happy to be at Liverpool, work as hard as he can, and generally lack conviction in front of goal. Balotelli's movement is incompatible with the current 3421 system that should remain in place for the rest of the season. He is better with a partner, and there is an element of the player being used in ways that will result in nothing but further frustration. The problem is that the solution for Mario isn't the solution for Liverpool.
Philippe Coutinho, Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana, Steven Gerrard, and possibly Jordon Ibe represent an impressive collection of players to support a fit-again Daniel Sturridge. From recent results and performances, Sterling would be the next option for Brendan Rodgers as the lone forward must continue to make runs into space. The Golden Boy's quality in tight spaces, work ethic, acceleration, movement, dribbling, and improved finishing make him a good candidate for the role. In a world of striking poverty, versatility and movement reign without question.
Opportunities were already thin with Rickie Lambert and Fabio Borini on the bench supporting a 20-year-old Raheem Sterling with Mario Balotelli banished to watching games and sharing his encouragement through social media. If it was that bad before Daniel Sturridge came back from injury, is this the beginning of the end for Mario Balotelli's Liverpool career? Probably. Daniel Sturridge combined with the continuation of 3421 make it almost impossible for Balotelli to start. Dejan Lovren is a centre back option in a three centre back formation, whereas Mario Balotelli plays in a position where only one striker or forward can operate. He's worked hard, behaved well, pressed well, but hasn't shown an instinct for the attacking movement needed by the manager. Rodgers may have his weaknesses, but he knows a few things about attacking players.
When Daniel Sturridge tweeted that he was on his way back to link up with Balotelli, my initial thought was one of excitement. Then reality struck where it usually does. The formation will not change for a player when it suits virtually all of Liverpool's most talented, productive, and in-form players in the squad. The fact that one of the best strikers in the Premier League over the past two years is an excellent fit to play in the single-striker role, supported by two narrow attacking midfielders in close support, makes this even more perilous for the former AC Milan striker. Sturridge's injury concerns, lack of match fitness, and Liverpool's demanding schedule will dictate that some rotation will be required to protect the player from breaking down or being overburdened physically. That would give an opportunity for another to deputise, but pushing Sterling forward with two from Coutinho, Lallana, and Gerrard in behind would be the next step. If Sterling requires a rest along with Sturridge, then Rodgers will show his hand.
Brendan Rodgers has revealed his thoughts in terms of team selection before when he could only call upon Balotelli, Borini, and Lambert when Sterling was on his nefarious and diabolical holiday; the results were not heartening for fans of the £16 million striker. Each appearance on the bench presents an opportunity for a goal or another display of ineffective movement. It has become difficult to even conceive how Liverpool would play with Balotelli starting up front in the current system preferred by Rodgers. Liverpool's short cannon-fodder inspired renaissance has been achieved largely without the Italian's input, and there seems to be no role for him to contribute to its continued existence in the face of stronger opposition. His last start in any competition was three months ago against Chelsea, and while there have been players who have found a place under Rodgers after being seemingly cast aside, there appears to be none available for Mario Balotelli.