Mario Balotelli is an easy target but Liverpool’s issues go much deeper

It is easy to blame Mario Balotelli for Liverpool's alarming dip in form, writes Jonathan Wilson, but their problems are much deeper than one scoreless Italian striker, while history shows Arsenal will have trouble with Chelsea.
Liverpool forward Mario Balotelli reacts during the Uefa Champions League football match against Basel on October 1, 2014 at the St. Jakob-Park stadium in Basel. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI
Liverpool forward Mario Balotelli reacts during the Uefa Champions League football match against Basel on October 1, 2014 at the St. Jakob-Park stadium in Basel. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI

“There were very few who are top class who were available and Mario Balotelli was a calculated gamble that we had to try to work with.”

As endorsements go, Brendan Rodgers’s comment about Balotelli was hardly the most ringing. It seems a long time since he was spinning the line after Liverpool’s 3-0 win at Tottenham Hotspur, during which he’d got the striker defending at corners for the first time in his career.

Balotelli was applauded off by home fans after the Merseyside derby, but outside Anfield the criticism is beginning to mount, which is understandable even if it isn’t always fair.

Read more: Brendan Rodgers in search of Liverpool revival against West Brom

Liverpool lie 14th in the Premier League table, already nine points behind the leaders Chelsea. They needed a 14-13 penalty shoot-out to beat Middlesbrough in the League Cup. And, having scraped by Ludogorets at home, their progress to the last 16 of the Uefa Champions League was put in doubt by Wednesday’s 1-0 defeat to Basel.

At this stage of last season, Liverpool were second in the league, just two points behind the leaders Arsenal, who looked far more catchable than Chelsea do.

The obvious difference to last season is the sale of Luis Suarez. He, of course, missed the first five league games of last season as he served the end of a 10-game ban for biting Branislav Ivanovic, so a year-over-year comparison is not precise. But with Daniel Sturridge injured for much of this season – although he could return on Saturday – the lack of attacking swagger when compared to the end of last season is startling.

So Balotelli, yet to score in the league this season, becomes the easy target. He didn’t manage a single touch in the Basel box on Wednesday and, perhaps more worryingly, disappeared straight down the tunnel at the final whistle, ignoring Rodgers’s request that his players should go and thank the fans who had made the trip to Switzerland.

“In terms of his behaviour he is consciously trying to work hard at what we demand here, the intensity and work rate,” said Rodgers.

But it’s too easy simply to blame Balotelli. Defensively, Liverpool have been a shambles, with set-plays a particular area of concern. The goalkeeper Simon Mignolet is going through a major dip in confidence.

Steven Gerrard, for all his insistence he can run as much as ever and that his free kick against Everton last week answered his critics, still doesn’t offer significant protection for the defence. New signings are struggling to fit in: Lazar Markovic has been flimsy, Adam Lallana pedestrian. Mamadou Sakho’s decision to leave the ground after being dropped for last Saturday’s Merseyside derby hinted at dressing-room unrest.

If Sturridge returns, and if he can form a partnership with Balotelli, as the evidence of the game at White Hart Lane suggested he might, the gripes could soon melt away. Beating West Brom would be a start, although they will not be the pushovers it looked as though they might be at the start of the season, having won back-to-back games to climb above Liverpool in the table.

The achievements of last season perhaps over-inflated expectations for this year. The transition to a post-Suarez world was always going to be difficult; it’s just that few thought it would be as difficult as this.

Meanwhile, Arsenal keep on playing out the same season, over and over and over again.

They beat the mid-ranking and lower teams and then they lose to the top sides. Over the past five seasons, they lost 16 and drew three of the 20 games they played against other teams who ended the season in the top five. Last season, 20 of the 38 goals they conceded were conceded in the away matches against those other top-five members.

Their game at Stamford Bridge last season was perhaps the nadir, hammered 6-0, the inadequacy of their midfield tracking exposed. Press Arsenal in a coordinated way, Chelsea showed, and they will get flustered: five of those six goals stemmed from Arsenal giving up possession, allowed Chelsea’s phalanx of midfield flyers to get a run at them. And now Chelsea have a proper centre-forward in Diego Costa.

Arsene Wenger seems to believe that, eventually, enough technically adept attacking midfielders of sufficient quality will prevail, but with injuries to Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta further weakening a midfield that was already lacking, it’s hard to see anything other than a further tale of Chelsea domination.

Arsenal are unbeaten in the league this season, but the defeat at Borussia Dortmund showed just how meaningless that record could be against a team that really gets after them.

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Published: October 3, 2014 04:00 AM


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