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.

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