Liverpool can’t say they were not warned. At the back end of this summer, a wise head from one of the clubs which has already employed Mario Balotelli and lived the whole experience in the raw offered some quiet diplomatic advice about precisely what they were taking on and how Brendan Rodgers would need eyes in the back of his head.
The response, from one who has known more players than most at Anfield, was as unflustered as you would expect from a club who had not even embarked on the journey at that stage. “We’re Liverpool,” came the reply. “The fans will welcome him, make him at home, make him want to perform.”
And all of that was perfectly rational. The ovation Balotelli received when he left the field of play two minutes from the end of Saturday’s Merseyside derby attested to the sanctuary this city and this club are willing to offer a lost soul who wants to start again and give all of himself to the collective.
The supporters who climbed to their feet were doing so for a mere six out of 10 display. The Italian had struck the crossbar and won the game’s decisive free-kick but was otherwise on the margins – following, not leading.
Sometimes it only takes one cameo to tell a story. Adam Lallana, cast into the cauldron of a Merseyside derby for only his second Anfield start, gestured to the space he needed the Italian to run into as they broke into a second-half counter-attack. Balotelli adhered to the command, reached the designated space and promptly fell over.
The clubs which have had Balotelli on their books will tell of the major misconception of managing him. It is that all will be fine when he steps on to the pitch, if his life can only be managed when he is off it.
“That’s not the case,” says a source with first-hand experience. “He does cause problems on it. You never know what he will do next. He can affect the team’s chemistry off the pitch and the dressing room.”
Those words seemed prescient in Basle on Wednesday night when Steven Gerrard looked so anguished, wondering how Balotelli had managed to slip offside again.
If he was a frustration for Internazionale, Manchester City and Milan, then he has potential to be an agony for Rodgers, a manager whose creed is built on the collective: individuals being subsidiary to the greater good; everyone pressing and maintaining the team’s shape.
Luis Suarez, a man with a very serious work ethic, fitted impeccably into that culture, for all his unpredictability, but Balotelli is a different proposition. The early evidence of his second spell in England reveals a player still expending more mental energy in his attempt to win decisions from officials than shaping the course of football matches. “Why is it always about me,” that infamous T-shirt might have read.
The challenge of how to wring from him those fleeting moments of brilliance, which reached their high tidemark at the 2012 European Championship, has consumed more experienced men than Rodgers.
The general policy has been to apply the same indulgence Roberto Mancini employed at City.
The Milan manager Clarence Seedorf insisted after the striker’s petulant response to another substitution during April’s 2-0 loss to Roma that “journalists have not helped Balotelli’s growth”. It was better to leave him alone, Seedorf said. “I feel his positive changes are not highlighted. It’s not fair only to look at his negative moments. His scoring statistics are strong.”
Within four months Seedorf had sold him to Liverpool for £16m – a medium bracket fee. Balotelli delivered in some big games for City, yet for the Rossoneri he diminished into a player who punished weaker sides and rarely opposition in the Champions League. Forte con i deboli e debole con i forti (strong with the weak and weak with the strong) as they like to say in Italy.
Rodgers’ evident intention to take a strong line with him is bold – and it is one which has certainly worked once before. I met the practitioner of such a strategy in central Manchester five years ago, who told me of the importance of sitting him down, keeping him focused, on the straight and narrow, having a mind to where he had come from and how it had worked.
That practitioner was Balotelli’s 5ft 5in, 75-year-old mother. Rodgers has many qualities. Understanding footballers is one of them. But the challenges are stacking up too steeply to add the mothering of a 24-year-old striker to that list.
If he can manage this player then the world will know he can handle anyone, but it has only taken six weeks to divine that Liverpool have made a serious error of judgement.Reuse content