What’s wrong with Mario Balotelli?


To replace Luis Suarez, Liverpool brought in Mario Balotelli. In five league appearances so far, Balotelli doesn’t look very good. It is still very early season, but what could we learn from his performance so far? Is it a fluke, or is he simply not cut out to play in the Premier League?

Starting with his playing time, we can see that Rodgers doesn’t exactly have a lot of faith in him. In 5 league matches so far, Balotelli only played the full 90 once. Ignoring the Tottenham game that Liverpool won 3-0, Balotelli was subbed off during the Aston Villa and Everton matches when Liverpool needed a goal. Either Rodgers obviously does not have enough faith in Balotelli to believe that he can score a late goal when it is crucial, or I am simply reading too much into it and Mario simply needs to get his fitness level back up.

I saw this interesting piece of trivia this morning:

This statistic doesn’t really mean, much, after all, most of those apps were over 2 years ago, young players can change quite a bit in 2 years. However, the first comparison that I thought of after reading that status is Jozy Altidore, successful against weaker competition, but just fails to put it together in the Premier League. Some people just attributed it to the increased difficulty of playing in the Premier League, lumping Balotelli together with the scores of players that fail to succeed at the Premier League level.

That explanation doesn’t really add up if you think about it, Balotelli isn’t exactly a newcomer to the Premier League, and he was quite capable back in 2011-2012 for Manchester City, scoring 32 goals in 17 apps. His last stint was also in Serie A, not exactly backwater 3rd rate competition. Serie A is also a slightly more defensive league than the Premier League, 2.46 goals per game to the Premier League’s 2.82.

Goals are an easy statistic to count, and going by the number of Goals Balotelli has scored, Mario is really struggling this season. However, goals are a result based statistic, and has very little inferential value for us to use to predict the future, we have to look at the peripherals, and the peripherals paints a quite interesting picture.

In Serie A last season, Balotelli scored 14 goals. Stripped of context, those numbers are quite decent. 8 of them were from set pieces (3 were penalties), only 6 were from open play. In the 2012-2013 season, Balotelli scored 12 goals, 9 of which were set pieces. Expecting Balotelli to bang in large numbers of goals in open play is thus almost an unrealistic thing, he is a forward whose goal scoring is almost completely dependent on set pieces.

Balotelli shoots often from long range. He averages a very high number of shots per game, and his shots to goals ratio quite poor. In a very small sample of this season, Balotelli has 4.6 shots per game, and 0 goals in league games, he shot 5.1 times per game last season playing in Serie A. Balotelli shot more than any other player in Serie A last season, the player who shot the second most only shot an average of 4.3 shots per game.

In every season, most of his shots were from long range. He has 14 shots from outside the box this season, to only 9 shots inside the box. Last season in Serie A, Balotelli shot 95 times from outside the box, 57 times from inside the box. Balotelli actually has a decent goals/shot ratio inside the box (0.14 last season), but he shoots too often from bad locations outside the box, potentially squandering good opportunities when he can either pass to a teammate, or even dribble the ball into the box himself.

Why doesn’t Balotelli go inside the box more? I suspect it is because of his aversion to physicality. Despite being a big guy, Balotelli goes down quite easily. Some suspect that it is because Balotelli dives a lot, but regardless, judging by how often he goes down and how often he gets carded, Balotelli might have an aversion to physical contact, causing him to shoot from long range more.

Balotelli’s poor scoring ability from open play doesn’t bode very well for prospects this season, and it is obvious that the key for him to turn around is for him to be more effective with his possession.  Shooting (and most likely missing) from long range is an extremely poor use of possession, rarely doing any more than just turning the ball over to the other side, and unless Balotelli can pass to his teammates more instead of just shooting, he will not be an effective striker for Liverpool.

Interestingly enough, relative to other forwards, Balotelli tracks back quite a bit. Despite his reputation as a ball hog who tries too hard to score, he does track back and tries to win the ball back and to stop opposing attacks. Just look at any heat map of Balotelli, he spends a large amount of time tracking back and defending, and not very much time actually in the box.

Despite all his struggles Balotelli still has great physical tools. He is a big guy, officially listed at 6 feet 2 inches (1.89 meters) and 194 lbs (88 kg). Like they always said he basketball, you just can’t coach height. Balotelli is still somewhat young, and has lots of time and potential to turn it around. With some effective coaching, Balotelli could very well improve significantly.

In my opinion, Balotelli will struggle if played as a solo striker. His tendency to shoot repeatedly at long range is quite inefficient, and without a partner up top, Balotelli will take more ineffective shots. I can see Balotelli doing quite well as a second striker though, with a partner, Balotelli can focus on creating chances and assisting another striker.