For much of the night, Mario Balotelli was a largely peripheral figure. He may have arrived at his new club with a reputation for inconsistent application, but against Ludogorets it certainly wasn't an issue of work rate or application or attitude. On this occasion, the striker was quite clearly working hard for the team, popping up all over the pitch as he attempted to close down opponents and get himself involved in play. The problem wasn't effort.
The problem was that with Daniel Sturridge out of the lineup, Balotelli was the lone striker on the pitch. But he wasn't playing as though he was the lone striker on the pitch. That desire to drop deep and to get involved both with and without the ball was actually hurting his ability to influence the match, as whenever Liverpool did attack they often lacked a focal point to play through or towards. Against Ludogorets, Balotelli was more ten than nine, and it wasn't working.
"He’s used to scoring. He’s already mentioned that he’s gone two games and hasn’t scored," said Brendan Rodgers following the match before revealing he spoke to Balotelli at the half about the problem his tendency to drop off was causing. "He needs to be in the box more—because of his link up play he drops in. And I said to him at half-time, make sure when the ball is in wide areas—penalty spot in, rather than penalty spot out."
Despite the imposing figure he cuts, Balotelli's desire to be involved in the buildup has throughout his career seen him tend to drop deeper. It has also seen him at times have a tendency to take too many long, speculative shots from distance. In the second half last night, though, he did as his manager asked and tried to push higher up the pitch while Liverpool had the ball, and in the end it paid off with an important first goal as a Liverpool player.
"He finds himself coming back outside the box for the cutback a lot of the time," explained Rodgers. "But he’s six feet three and great in the air and I think when the cross comes in he showed great physical strength, touch, and then the finish was a brilliant finish. It was wonderful technique with the outside of the foot and I think it will give him a whole load of confidence. On top of that I thought he worked very hard tonight. He was pressing but he’s still trying to get fit."
Fully fit or not, the encouraging thing so far has been Balotelli's willingness to try and tweak his game. He's already showing a greater tendency to close down players than he did at either of his last two clubs, and Rodgers has for the first time in his career handed him the responsibility of marking on defensive corners. He has also shown commendable composure, keeping his cool despite being the target of more than a few cynical kicks already since returning to England.
The issues seen against Ludogorets, though, do speak to the fact that he may not be ideally suited to leading the line in isolation, and it's no coincidence the team again looked more dangerous with two strikers on the pitch. Balotelli seems admirably open to the lessons Rodgers has tried to teach, but just as important as the striker's willingness will be Rodgers putting him in a position to succeed—and that, hopefully, will mean two strikers from the start next match.