On the surface, it looks like Liverpool replaced a toothache with a headache. Mario Balotelli is one of the few players who can compete with Luis Suarez when it comes to misbehavior and strange Wikipedia passages.
When we last saw Balotelli in England, he famously fell out with former Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini to the point where Mancini joked — using that term loosely — that he would’ve punched the striker in his playing days.
“I told him, if you played with me 10 years ago I would give you every day maybe one punch in your head,” Mancini told the BBC.
But things can change. Since moving to AC Milan, Balotelli developed into one of the best strikers in Italy, even leading the national team in a way that makes England fans envious.
Now that he’s coming back to the Premiership, Liverpool could again posses the most lethal front line in the Premier League, as long as Balotelli behaves. And yes, that’s a massive caveat.
Even before signing Balotelli, you could argue that Liverpool had the second-best striker in the Premier League, Daniel Sturridge. After Suarez, Sturridge led all strikers in combined goals and assists (28), while finishing second behind Sergio Aguero in minutes per goal/assist.
Last season, Balotelli finished with 14 goals and six assists in 30 matches, but for Liverpool, Balotelli’s added value comes in how he scores his goal as much as the tally. His right leg is lethal and he makes a habit of converting preposterous, long-range efforts— something that Suarez often added.
Last season, Suarez led the Premier League with seven goals from outside the penalty area. Balotelli, meanwhile, led Serie A with six long-distance goals, including efforts like this:
However, Balotelli also attempted 18 more long-distance shots in 669 fewer minutes, so Liverpool Manager Brendan Rodgers will probably ask him to be a bit more judicious with his shot selection, especially given the talent around him.
The other skill Balotelli brings is the ability to draw fouls with his dribbling. Last season, he was fouled almost four times per 90 minutes, more than any player on Liverpool’s roster, including Suarez.
The added benefit of these additional free kicks is that Balotelli is also dangerous from set pieces, converting at a higher rate than even Suarez.
According to Squawka, Balotelli had a higher cumulative attack scorer (43.96) than any Liverpool player currently on the roster, including Sturridge (38.45). However, while this all looks promising on paper, the main concern is how Balotelli’s arrival will affect a Liverpool team that gelled last year and found a way to balance all of its moving parts and egos.
Given his incredible talents, there’s a reason Balotelli’s price tag is so low, when other elite attackers carry nine-figure transfer fees. He averaged more yellow cards per 90 minutes than any Liverpool player and his knack for unpredictability will no doubt be a worry in big matches. For all of Suarez’s temper tantrums and nibbling, he was by most accounts a fine teammate and dressing room presence. Balotelli has a reputation for enigmatic behavior, and there could be a clashing of egos between Sturridge and Balotelli regarding who is the no. 1 striker, something that Rodgers is already trying to prevent, by emphasizing that Sturridge is his guy.
Even with those chemistry concerns, the potential reward is well worth the risk and from a neutral perspective, Balotelli’s return is welcomed for pure entertainment reasons alone. It’s just a shame that he won’t be able to join Liverpool to face his former Manchester City teammates in today’s game.