Depending on who you ask, Mario Balotelli is either a misunderstood genius or an insane manchild who disrupts, to a significant degree, every team he plays on. Both views are blinkered -- it takes a fairly well-trained eye to ignore the controversy that swirls around the 24-year-old striker, but overlooking the talent and raw goalscoring output is perhaps even more absurd -- and the truth is a fusion of the two camps. Mario Balotelli is a very good footballer with the potential to become a star who is also inconsistent, frequently hilarious and a huge pain in the ass.
And now Liverpool are set to buy him for £16 million. So that's interesting.
If we ignore the specifics of Mario Balotelli and describe him in terms of pure value, what we'd get is a volatile player who might give you nothing or a budding star capable of pushing Daniel Sturridge out of the centre forward spot. Or, obviously, someone somewhere in between. This is not a 'normal' £16 million (plus high wages) purchase in that Liverpool are probably not going to get value for money for Balotelli. They might, of course, but they equally might get far more than they paid for, or far less. The spread in his possible impact on the team is as high as any player in football, and that alone makes it a curious move for the Reds.
Despite finishing in second last year, Liverpool are clearly in the Champions League dogfight. With Chelsea and Manchester City the real title contenders, spots three through five will probably be occupied by two of Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool, with the Gunners currently looking the most 'safe'. Selling Luis Suarez to Barcelona means that Brendan Rodgers' side has money to burn, and he's already spent a great deal this summer to help mitigate losing his top player. Where does Balotelli fit in?
Volatility can actually be a very helpful attribute to have in your players. For a team that's reasonably close to but still outside the serious Champions League contenders -- we'll call this hypothetical side 'Hottenham Totspurs', or 'Spurs' for short -- picking up volatile assets and hoping that the stars will align is actually a viable way of competing for the top four.
That strategy requires a lot of luck, and sometimes will go to pieces spectacularly, but there's only so much money to spend and they're in a position where gambling can only help them. So too would a team that looks nailed on to finish in the top three but cannot mount a serious title challenge. Buying players who might turn into stars gives those teams a much better shot at breaking out than the safer options.
Liverpool do not appear to be in this sort of area. What they need to be is better than one of Manchester United and Arsenal, and first-week overreactions aside it's not clear that that's true. Balotelli represents an upside play, but his downside is that much of the money spent might evaporate if the striker applies his trademark chaotic indifference at Anfield rather than his explosive ability. Which isn't exactly unlikely, given his history.
So if Liverpool have £16 million to spend on transfer fees and well north of £100,000 per week on wages, they can get a far safer option in their quest to edge ahead of their top four rivals. Making a major gamble at this juncture probably isn't as sensible as playing it straight -- which, admittedly, they were looking set to do when they tried (and failed) to sign Loic Remy from QPR earlier in the summer.
English Premier League
English Premier League
On the other hand, their squad composition seems to call out for a potential star. With the exception of the defence, Liverpool have been more focused on depth than immediate upgrades to the first XI this summer. With European competition to worry about, depth makes sense, but with Suarez out of the picture the first XI is also undoubtedly weaker than it was in 2013/14. With so many good-but-not-great bodies on the squad, the idea of getting someone who can at least in theory fill the departing Uruguayan's talented shoes would doubtless be appealing.
But at the same time, Balotelli represents a potential star in one of the few positions where Liverpool already have one. Daniel Sturridge was one of the leading scorers in the Premier League last season while playing second fiddle to Suarez, but stylistically Balotelli is far more similar to his prospective striker partner than Suarez -- a supremely mobile, unorthodox forward -- ever was. Sturridge and Balotelli might work up top, but it's difficult to see the pair gelling particularly well at present.
And so Liverpool purchasing Balotelli looks great from certain angles, strange from others and downright absurd from still others. Which, given that this is Balotelli, is particularly appropriate.