By Adam Jones @adamjones_28
Mario Balotelli has his much publicized problems right now, going six Premier League games without a goal since returning to England and producing some questionable performances in recent weeks. Aside from a spirited display in the Merseyside derby, his performances have lacked the necessary commitment and temperament that Liverpool fans are used to and demand from their team. The first goal on Sunday epitomised Balotelli at the moment; turning his back on proceedings and throwing his arms down by his side – only to turn around to see Richard Dunne had turned Glen Johnson’s cross into his own net.
Balotelli’s attitude is hardly likely to fill his teammates with confidence – something that has been clearly noticeable all season so far in Phillipe Coutinho. The young Brazilian’s ability is founded on belief and with Balotelli flailing his arms around and failing to make the type of breathless running that a certain Uruguayan did last season, Coutinho has struggled to make his mark at all.
Balotelli’s style; direct and into feet, looking to find a yard on a defender before unleashing a shot, also fails to accommodate the plethora of creative talent behind him – specifically Coutinho.
Coutinho’s brilliance can only be exercised when he has options to slide through passes for players making runs behind the defence. We saw that on Sunday with the Reds’ decisive goal – Sterling’s run was clever and Coutinho’s pass with the outside of his foot was breath-taking. If you look at his best assists from last season, namely Sturridge’s goal in the first half demolition of Arsenal at Anfield – Coutinho perfectly found Sturridge who had peeled off Per Mertesacker before finishing with aplomb.
Compare that with this season, however, and Coutinho’s performances have been well below par considering his pre-season form. At home to Aston Villa, in particular, the Brazilian struggled to dictate play the way he would like to with very little happening in front of him. With only the sluggish figure of Balotelli ahead of him, Coutinho’s willingness to play the killer pass was flawed given the options weren’t there to do so in the first place. He either reluctantly looked to go wide or force uncharacteristic one-twos more synonymous with players like Jack Wilshere. That performance epitomises Coutinho’s problems this season and it all stems from Balotelli’s style and attitude.
Bear in mind that on the eve of the season’s curtain raiser following an inspired display against Borussia Dortmund at Anfield, many were demanding Rodgers to build his side around the little Brazilian. A cameo performance on Sundayshould reinforce the manager’s faith in the number 10 – but only if he changes his tactics upfront.
Real Madrid is an exception – any result would be a huge bonus, but with Sturridge out for another fortnight or so, Rodgers could tinker with his side in the league by giving Sterling an even more advanced role in Sturridge’s absence. With Balotelli not even scoring he offers nothing to the side, but with Sterling making his dynamic movement off the last defender, Rodgers knows he has an alternative at his disposal to the current problems.
Last season’s explosive attacking displays, which took the team so close to the title, were based on the unpredictability of the forward players. Balotelli is the antithesis to this dynamism – static, predictable and lazy. For Coutinho to thrive and re-establish the side’s attacking fervour, Rodgers has to address this issue.