BRENDAN RODGERS likes to talk.
He loves reciting a story with a happy ending. Especially if he stars in it.
It’s safe to say that right now the Liverpool manager has built up plenty of goodwill with the club’s fanbase and the media at large. He deserves it. He’s done a cracking job. He has improved individual players significantly. If he wants to chat away to journalists about how he helped Daniel Sturridge realise his untapped potential or bang on about how he instilled confidence into Jordan Henderson’s game I have no problem with that. Some may see it as self indulgent and categorise such musings as shameless self promotion or David Brent-style riffing but – frankly – he’s earned the right to some self congratulation from time to time. He has an ego, like all of us, and if he wants it stroked for some of his achievements that’s fine.
One thing has concerned me lately though when it comes to the topic of Rodgers’ rhetoric. It’s nothing too serious (yet), but the way he has been talking about Mario Balotelli has grated on me. I’ve tried to ignore it and most of the time it’s admittedly been fairly harmless stuff, but after Liverpool’s victory at Spurs it became downright patronising in my eyes.
Saying that Balotelli’s time at Liverpool could be his “last chance at a big club” was justified. He made the same type of public assertion when Daniel Sturridge came to Anfield and frankly, it was a fair assessment in both instances. His joke that Balotelli would add “trouble” to the squad when he was asked about his new signing on live television may have been slightly misguided but it was obviously just a rib. An off-the-cuff joke not to be taken seriously. Still nothing to see here.
Then came the post-match press conference at White Hart Lane on Sunday.
“For the first time in his life he marked at a corner. Serious. International player, won three titles in Italy, cups, Champions League. And we were doing corners and he went ‘I don’t mark at corners’. Well you do now…”
First of all, the notion that Balotelli has never picked a man up at a corner before is just a complete fabrication. You don’t even need to go and re watch old games from the Italian’s career to know that it’s pure fantasy. The idea of a big centre forward never having been directed to defend a corner under the tutelage of the likes of Jose Mourinho, Roberto Mancini or Cesare Prandelli is, for want of a better phrase, complete b*****ks. Even if Balotelli said that in training (and if he did I’d assume he was kidding) why bring it up in front of the press? What purpose did it serve?
It’s a fairly inconsequential quote on the face of it and, coming off the back of an outstanding 3-0 win, it was unlikely to be scrutinised too much, but that doesn’t make it okay. It was completely patronising and disrespectful towards the player and his former coaches. Worse, it also feeds into the notion that Mario Balotelli is some kind of lazy prima donna aimlessly floating along in need of Rodgers to bring him back down to earth.
Predictably, some people lapped it up. ‘Look at what Brendan said. Mario never used to bother marking players he was that much of a lad! Brendan will sort him out, though. Won’t get away with that here.’ That sort of stuff. It was a line that made people chuckle, no doubt. But it was completely unnecessary of the manager to make that conversation public.
Put yourself in the striker’s shoes for a minute. You’ve just helped your team to a 3-0 victory on your début. You’ve played pretty damn well given the circumstances and gone off to a standing ovation from the away fans. Then you hear your manager talking about you as if you are some spoilt ten year old who has belatedly found a proper role model who will finally insist that you eat your greens whether you want to or not. If I were Mario and I read those quotes I’d feel like a bit of an idiot.
Balotelli famously dislikes the rumours, half truths and apocryphal tales that surround him. He’s not too fond of the media and their desire to paint him as some immature, detached nincompoop. No wonder. He’s a complicated young man with a few mistakes in his past but he isn’t merely the bumbling comedy act that many would have you believe. Those quotes from Rodgers were worthless. They only served to underline this perception of Mario the class clown who desperately requires a guiding hand from his new headmaster.
I’m sure there was no malice intended from Rodgers and his mouth just got a little carried away in the aftermath of an impressive day’s work, but he needs to rein it in. He’s been quoted as saying Liverpool aren’t going to become ‘The Mario Balotelli Show’, so maybe it would be better if he didn’t add fuel to those particular flames with silly quotes that immediately write headlines for opportunistic journalists out to promote the myth of ‘Mario the Maverick’.
The amount of surprise on show in the aftermath of Balotelli’s début illustrated just how difficult a task it will be for the player to alter the general perception of him. People we’re apparently amazed that he’d actually worked hard for Liverpool against Spurs! Some have even dared to use it as proof that Rodgers can ‘turn the player around’. It was as if Balotelli was a changed man in their eyes. He’d apparently gone from a lazy git into a workaholic after six days on Merseyside.
Again, this is just pure fiction.
A work-shy player unwilling or unable to contribute defensively to his team simply doesn’t play in a Jose Mourinho side no matter how talented he may be (ask Juan Mata). A complete lay about doesn’t lead the line for Italy and destroy one of the best centre halves in world football during a Euro 2012 semi final the way Mario did to Mats Hummels. Preening, uncommitted individuals aren’t usually popular with their peers at any football club for long and yet one need only look to the reaction of Man City’s players to Balotelli’s presence at the Eithad last Monday for confirmation that he was a well-liked figure there.
There is no doubt that, when his head drops, Balotelli can lose motivation. While other players will run around more when they’re frustrated, he can sulk and withdraw from a game if things aren’t going his way. Liverpool and Rodgers will no doubt have to cross that bridge when they come to it sooner or later. But this idea that Mario Balotelli is just some rebel without a cause who simply does whatever the hell he feels like every time he steps on to a football pitch is completely unfounded. It needs to be knocked on the head, not propagated further by irresponsible quotes from the player’s new manager.
If Mario Balotelli does succeed and improve at Liverpool Football Club then I will quite happily listen for hours on end to Brendan Rodgers reminiscing and eulogising about the work that went into making that happen. Until then though, I’d rather he keep schtum and let Mario’s football do the talking.
After all, as Brendan said himself, Liverpool don’t need to become ‘The Mario Balotelli Show’.