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How Risky Is Mario Balotelli for Liverpool?

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A lot has been discussed on the risk involved in signing a player with Mario Balotelli's combination of talent, controversy, history, and character. Yet what sort risk does Mario Balotelli pose?

Justin K. Aller

Mario Balotelli is a player I rate highly for many of the same reasons others do. It is his lovely mix of physical and technical gifts that make him such a conundrum for opposing managers and players, one that is extraordinarily taxing to solve when he is at his best. His record is solid for a 24-year-old attacking player who should be able to progress into his prime years where he should improve on his productivity, especially as he is free from the plague of being prone to injuries.

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Mario Balotelli represents a risk even with a relatively low wage package and transfer fee that would be beneficial for Liverpool's Financial Fair Play strategy and it's another example of picking up a player of noted ability for a lesser fee than his talent is worth. Liverpool consequently benefit from a young player fulfilling his talent, as well as potentially extracting a large profit from the increase of his value on the transfer market in the event of a future sale. If the player proves to be a disappointment, he can be sold on for something close to the initial purchase price and probably record a book profit as the transfer fee is amortised over the length of the player's contract. It's virtually a low risk pursuit when a player is acquired for far less than his value.

Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho arrived lacking opportunities at big clubs but have shined since arriving in January 2013 otherwise known as the transfer window of the Football Gods and are two excellent examples of this transfer strategy. What the football world saw was that the performances at Espanyol and Bolton Wanderers were the result of regular playing time and belief from management. Coutinho had no questions or fears surrounding his personality or application but some parallels have been drawn between Sturridge and Balotelli. The idea of the move representing a last chance before being termed as potential no longer but unfulfilled mid-twenties decent-but-not-great-fare of striker, separated by only 8 months when arriving at Anfield, and the suspicion that greater consistency must be attained for footballing prowess to be displayed in its splendour.

Yet there are glaring differences between the two players. Daniel Sturridge has shown himself to be a humble and dedicated professional who has not clashed with managers and suffered from disciplinary issues. His departure from Manchester City was understandable given that Emmanuel Adebayor, Roque Santa Cruz, Robinho, Carlos Tevez, Craig Bellamy, and even Benjani Mwaruwari were what a teenage Sturridge would have competed with if he stayed at Man City.

Perhaps a move to Chelsea wasn't entirely wise in terms of securing regular football but he scored when played regularly under André Villas-Boas and Owen Coyle in different positions. Imagine if Daniel Sturridge made a move from Chelsea to another club before joining Liverpool in January 2014. Perhaps the parallels would be stronger. Sturridge was already unfairly characterised, in my long-held opinion, as a risk in terms of attitude but never possessed even near the same baggage as Mario Balotelli.

Of course, Brendan Rodgers gave Sturridge the opportunity and believed in the Liverpool number 15's ability to perform with regular minutes. Rodgers offered the right support combined with both the tactical freedom and responsibility needed for a young striker to thrive but the England international was a willing, dedicated student. Quick apologies were delivered when appearing to disagree with Rodgers' decision to substitute him and he currently stands as one of the league's deadliest strikers.

Raheem Sterling has also been cited as a talent who could have potentially veered off the rails before Brendan Rodgers set him straight but Sterling was 17 when he was Luis Suárez's primary attacking support in Rodgers' first season at the club. It is expected that the period between 17 and 19 would be one where a player would work on their consistency, dedication, and professionalism. Even with Rodgers needing to tell Sterling "steady" once in a while and probably advising him to be more responsible in his personal life, the budding superstar seems to have benefited from the manager's guidance. Perhaps a grumble and few sulky moments were responses to stern words but the results have been remarkable.

This is not to overlook the worrying allegations of domestic violence and common assault, something that is not taken as seriously as it should be in sport, but in terms of consistency Sterling, wasn't a serious concern considering his relative inexperience. Perhaps the support from Raheem Sterling's mother, who the youngster claims to be the main influence in his life, should be credited for steering her son through and beyond the problems with behaviour that saw him removed from mainstream school in his "younger" days. Brendan Rodgers' holistic to player management approach must have played its role too.

The form of Sterling sparkled, dipped, plateaued, and sharply rose over the course of two seasons at the club to the point where the two half seasons of promise and productivity could very well be the foundation for a sterling show this campaign. Rodgers' influence has been important but once again, Sterling had to be open to the Antrim man's way of working to maximise his talent. Player, manager, and club have all gained considerably from what many appropriately recognise as one of the most talented attacking youngsters in world football. While some of Sterling's older international colleagues are still spoken of as potential, Liverpool's multi-purpose forward already looks like the complete package and the Champions League may offer conclusive evidence of this.

In Rodgers' two seasons at the club, Luis Suárez was probably the biggest headache for the manager because of the controversies and unwanted attention brought by the Uruguayan international. Rodgers' patience with the player and firmness when Suárez looked for a transfer last summer worked well for player and club. However, Suárez always worked hard on the field, never gave up, and did everything in pursuit of victory. Application was never the problem. The same couldn't be said of Balotelli. So while I'm in favour of the move and rate Balotelli's talent as a footballer, I realise there's some risk with him. In terms of application, Balotelli could very well be harder to work with than Suárez, Sterling, or Sturridge.

Mario Balotelli has some advantages that the three do not in terms of building a good relationship with Brendan Rodgers and forging a productive career with Liverpool. He's played more regular football than Daniel Sturridge did and has experienced more high pressure match scenarios before arriving at Liverpool. He already boasts 33 international caps and has scored some vital goals at international tournaments. He is physically developed and will not require the bulking up that Sterling did along with a more settled life with his fiancée who he got engaged to in June. He's also a father but many disruptive players have wives and children. He tends not to get banned for biting, avoids violent altercations in his personal life, and is accustomed to racial abuse as opposed to being tangled in a murky case of meanings, context, viewpoints, intent, and etymology. So there's that.

Mario Balotelli's 88 goals in 220 matches for Internazionale, Manchester City, and AC Milan is comparable to Fernando Torres' 91 strikes in 244 games for Atlético Madrid. Daniel Sturridge joined Liverpool a few months after turning 23, Luis Suárez arrived merely a week after turning 24, and Fernando Torres travelled from sunny Spain to England at a similar age to Daniel Sturridge, less than four months after his 23rd birthday in March 2007. It seems that Balotelli is joining Liverpool at the right age for a striker if one studies recent history and he understands the demands of playing in England combined with the expectation of performing at a high level. He also knows how to score goals.

Brendan Rodgers could succeed with Balotelli but do not underestimate the importance of a player making his own contribution to developing his game.

Brendan Rodgers could succeed with Balotelli but do not underestimate the importance of a player making his own contribution to developing his game. There is no doubt that the right guidance can help a player realise the effort, discipline, and dedication needed to truly excel. It may even be a case of Mario Balotelli seeing the Liverpool "family", the togetherness, the excellent attacking football, the quality players, the forward-thinking trainer, and clearly defined boundaries to push him into falling into line for his own benefit along with a growing maturity in his own life.

Rodgers, however, is not a magician who took misfits and turned dusty copper coins to gleaming gold ones but worked with players as they grew in maturity, offering insight designed to help "the player and the person" develop according to the 41-year-old's coaching philosophy. He is an excellent coach and gives the right technical, tactical, and mental environment for players to thrive and that isn't always common.

If you look at my coaching career from when I was a youth coach, it's all I've ever done. People who know me well will tell you that I look to try to develop the player and the person. If I feel that someone cares enough, I will give them everything. We have a culture that creates the talents and gives them the opportunity to blossom and nothing will ever stand in the way of that. As long as they show they care, want to learn and develop, we can give them the opportunity. - Brendan Rodgers, August 2014.

That Balotelli possesses a respectable goalscoring record while proving to be underwhelming considering his potential, is quite the testament to his talent. I don't think the risk is a financial one when factoring the fee and wages Liverpool will be committing to making the deal a reality but it's certainly one in terms of the move working out as Rodgers would like it to when confronted with the character and temperament of Mario Balotelli. The risk for Liverpool is not that Balotelli will score goals because he tends to do that at a respectable rate in his career to date. The risk isn't even a financial one considering the deals being made by lesser lights in the Premier League and Championship for strikers who have not come close to producing the goalscoring numbers and performances of Mario Balotelli at the level he's operated at.

The risk isn't one of poisoning a squad that is closely wedded to the ideals and expectations of Brendan Rodgers in terms of conduct and application, where it is generally known and accepted that performances in training can impact positively or negatively on a player's regular participation with the first team. If such a rule applies to the likes of Luis Suárez and Steven Gerrard, then it is unlikely to be one that can be easily ignored by any player if they wish to remain at the club. Could Mario Balotelli seriously debate whether he should take a penalty with Steven Gerrard in an environment where the captain's presence is highly respected by players, ownership, directors, club staff, and management? This is a man immune to rotation people, he should not be messed with.

Liverpool's squad is one that would marginalise a player who was deemed as a needless waster of time and the manager is not one to sit on a player for a couple of seasons if he isn't a right fit for the club, especially if he wasn't expensively acquired. When the club's record signing was jettisoned with haste in Rodgers' first transfer window, there can be no uncertainty that fees and wages aren't too high on the manager's list of concerns when it comes to a player who is judged as a poor fit, irrespective of perceived talent or reputation. Even the wonderful technician that is Nuri Şahin, a player that Rodgers pursued aggressively on loan from Real Madrid, was offered an early way out when it was clear that the arrangement wasn't progressing as everyone had hoped.

Even if Balotelli excelled for two seasons and agitated for a move to a European giant with Mino Raiola orchestrating quite the unsavoury and acrimonious departure, Super Mario would have done his work. Roberto Mancini provided some words that confirm the regrettable fact that Mario Balotelli is not a serious danger to anyone but his own talent: "I have seen players in my life with fantastic quality but in the end, they did nothing. I don't want Mario to finish like these players. It would be bad for him." Producing one goal every two to three games isn't what Balotelli should be doing but so much more.

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Mario Barwuah Balotelli likes to clown around, has done some silly things in his career, lacks discipline on the field but some of football's greatest players had on-field disciplinary issues. He's not this nefarious and diabolical dressing room presence that some claim, it's just that he's not as focused and consistent as he could and should be. Sure, the clubs he's played for have experienced some disappointing performances from him but he can never be termed as a flop wherever he's been, only a missed opportunity of witnessing the birth of something and someone truly special. The real risk is that Mario Balotelli doesn't come close to truly revealing his gargantuan talent to the football world in Liverpool colours.