Saturday, August 23, 2014

From the Frying Pan to the Fire(works): Balotelli Comes to Liverpool

It's not a stretch to say that the entirety of Liverpool's 2014 has been dominated by the name "Luis Suarez" - whether it was his out-of-this-galaxy play down the stretch in the Premier League, his tooth-first assault of Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup, or his sale to Barcelona in late July. The man is a top-5 world talent, a menace to himself and others, and would be the first choice to be the new Dos Equis spokesman if Jonathan Goldsmith drops dead in a tragic nude hang gliding accident.

With Suarez gone, the talk turned to the Uruguayan-sized hole in the top line. Daniel Sturridge scored the second-most goals in the EPL last year, but the influence of Suarez as a source of those goals cannot be overstated. No one knows if Sturridge can carry a team himself, and fortunately, we won't need to wonder about it anymore.

That's because Super Mario Balotelli is coming back to the Premier League.

Miss me?
If you have followed world soccer in the past five years, you've heard of Balotelli, and if you've heard of Balotelli, you know exactly how excited every Premier League fan is after hearing this news. After an extremely volatile three years on the blue side of Manchester, Balotelli returned to his homeland for a season and a half at AC Milan before moving to Liverpool today. He instantly turns Liverpool into the most interesting team in the Premier League, for a number of reasons.

If you haven't heard of Balotelli, let's try to put this into American sports terms. This would be like if Latrell Sprewell was one of the top 15 players in the NBA (and the Knicks were a top 3 team) when he choked P.J. Carlisemo, then moved to play for the Phoenix Suns for a season and a half, then got traded to the Celtics, who were also a top 5 team and had just traded Paul Pierce. Kind of. Except Balotelli choked his coach stylistically by playing long stretches lost in his own head, rather than physically by squeezing his throat.

You know what? It's not like that at all. There's really nothing like Balotelli returning to the Premier League, so let's just get into what impact this move will have for the Reds this season.

Balotelli's Impact

The word "mercurial" is the most overused adjective in world football punditry. It can mean anything from "talented but unmotivated" to "talented but racist and violent towards opponents" (Suarez) to "talented but unmotivated and violent towards teammates and also sometimes he shoots off fireworks in his bathroom that one time" (our very own Balotelli). Seriously, take a look at some of the shit he's pulled and tell me he's not more of a headache than the Terrible Tooth.

So, we've taken one crazy striker and replaced him with another. But this is anything but a like-for-like switch.

Suarez has one of the highest work rates in world football. I tried for legitimately an hour to find stats on average distance traveled per player and couldn't, so you're gonna have to trust me on this one. Conversely, one of the biggest knocks on Balotelli is that he doesn't always give 100% effort. He's almost like a petulant child on the playground in some ways - one minute he'll be playing full-tilt, and the next minute he'll be distracted by a colorful butterfly (yellow card) or a group of youngsters on the swingset (heckling fans) and will totally lose his mind.

In addition, Balotelli and Suarez occupy slightly different roles within an offensive scheme. Despite Suarez's record goal haul last year, he is much more than just a poacher. Here's a map of all the places that he touched the ball during a match last season against Sunderland:

Though it's only one game, it's evident that Suarez is comfortable dropping deep to receive possession. His statistics from last season bear this out, and one in particular is interesting to note: Suarez created one chance for every 32 minutes he was on the pitch. This is in contrast to Balotelli's rate of one chance created per 65 minutes. Liverpool have some creative players in the squad, including noted assist maestros Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana, but Suarez was a major piece of their buildup play as well, not just a finisher. Let's not forget he finished with the second-most assists in the Premier League as well, behind Gerrard. Balotelli doesn't do assists:
Balotelli and Suarez don't share much in common physically other than excellent speed. Suarez is a slippery fish, able to wriggle into and out of jams in incredibly tight spaces at top speed. Balotelli is a more bruising presence, though he stops short of being the type of hulking forward usually seen patrolling Chelsea's top line. 

Some have said that Liverpool's attack may be even more potent this year, what with Balotelli's ability to sky for the crosses of Markovic, Lallana, Gerrard and others. I believe this to be wishful thinking - you only have to look through a highlight tape of Suarez's goals last year to know that the Uruguayan was no slouch in the air himself.

The best thing that can be said for Balotelli is that he will be an asset to Liverpool's counterattacking style. His size and speed will terrify back lines across the league. Will he replace Suarez? No. But no one could. He's an excellent striker at his best and a team cancer at his worst, so let's hope that the promise of Champions League football and Brendan Rodgers's letter-based inspiration tactics work on the young Italian.

Monday, August 18, 2014

In the Books: SAS 2.0 deliver Reds 3 points

After a seemingly endless procession of preseason matches, culminating in a loss to Manchester United in the final of the Guinness International Champions Cup, Liverpool FC finally took the field yesterday for a match that meant something.

The good news? A win, 2-1, over Southampton. 

The bad? A few issues, some new, many old, that will need swift fixes if the team is to escape the early part of the schedule with their title dreams unblemished. 

Still, as the man who scored the winner points out, the win is the important thing.

SAS 2.0 is here.

Last year's deadly strike force of Suarez and Sturridge terrorized Premier League defenses to the tune of 52 goals in 38 matches. Of course, with Suarez off to greener pastures, the goals will fall to a variety of attacking midfielders, including incumbents such as Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson, and Phillippe Coutinho, as well as new signings Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic.

We're only one game in, and two of those incumbents mentioned are acquitting themselves rather well:
That's 19-year-old Sterling showing off his blistering pace, splitting the two central defenders and dispatching Henderson's inch-perfect through ball with ease.

What that Vine doesn't show is the scrap for the ball in midfield. If Liverpool's attack is to be even remotely as toothy as it was last year, they'll need to win these types of balls. Rather than a methodical, pendulum-like possession team (Barcelona, Arsenal, any team that Pep Guardiola manages), the Reds relied upon pure pace and lethal counterattacking to get goals last season. These types of goals are easier to come by if you're consistently stripping possession from your opponents in midfield. Keep it up, Hendo.

And what can you say about Daniel Sturridge, except that he's a goalscorer's goalscorer. Some may call this soft, or padding the stats. But I call him a latter-day Dirk Kuyt - a man able to be in the perfect position at the perfect time:

With a deft touch of... um... some part of his left leg, the ball ends up in the net and Liverpool regains the lead.

And also, who won that header for the assist? None other than 5'7 inch Raheem Sterling. Granted, he won it over 5'8 Steven Davis, but still. SAS is back!

The defense rests. 

For much of last season, Liverpool's seemed to subscribe to the axiom positing that the best defense is a great offense. And it nearly won them the league.

This simply won't work with the squad as currently constituted. If you could roll Steven Gerrard's odometer back a few thousand miles, or conjure up a last-gasp signing of one of the big names that seem to be floating around (Cavani, Reus, Falcao... Eto'o?), then perhaps. But barring those two things, this team will have to defend better, and that means defending as a unit.

Suarez, when not devouring human flesh, was an absolute pest of a defender. Sturridge, to put it bluntly, is not. And for all Sterling's pace, he sometimes sprints himself out of position in an effort to win possession. It's obvious that a team can't be both a park-the-bus defensive unit and a swashbuckling goal-plunderer, but Liverpool need to realize that a little of the former will make up for their loss of the latter. Sterling's goal came from solid defensive midfield work - the type of work that Steven Gerrard (Warning: blasphemy ahead) might not be capable of on a consistent basis.

This was evident during long, listless stretches against Southampton, when the deep-lying central midfield partnership of Lucas and Gerrard looked toothless and reactionary. I often forgot that Lucas was even on the field, and Gerrard's long balls, while accurate, didn't amount to many scoring threats.

The defense performed passably, though there were lots of lost marks on Southampton's lone goal:

Glen Johnson and Martin Skrtel, Liverpool's two longest-tenured defenders, seem to be marking shadows. This type of thing will not fly against better quality opposition, both domestically and in Europe. On the positive side, we FINALLY signed a left back, which should help.

Three takeaways. 

Let's take three things away from this week's game, just as the Reds took three points.

1. Simon Mignolet's reaction time is relatively outrageous:

2.  Brendan Rodgers loves to tinker with lineups and formations, and just look at the wealth of talent he has to do it with:

  • Adam Lallana
  • Rickie Lambert
  • Raheem Sterling
  • Jordan Henderson
  • Phillippe Coutinho
  • Steven Gerrard
  • Joe Allen
  • Daniel Sturridge
  • Lazar Markovic
3. Champions League football is back. YNWA