Thursday, 28 August 2014

Signing Of The Week: Balotelli or Di Maria?

"Cornered the boy kicked out at the world. The world kicked back. A lot fucking harder."

This week has seen two massive moves in the Premier League involving the country's two biggest clubs. Liverpool paid a relatively small fee of £16m for the famously enigmatic Mario Balotelli while Man United have gone and broken the British transfer record, paying £59.7m for Real Madrid's 'unsung hero' Angel Di Maria.

Two transfers that will no doubt have a monumental impact on the Premier League landscape this season. Just what effect can we expect them to have at their new clubs? And who has got the better deal?

Mario Balotelli, Liverpool

Just nineteen months after he left English football, Mario Balotelli is back with his tail between his legs, admitting he never should have left. Balotelli's first spell in England at Man City was defined by moments of controversy, intertwined with some of complete madness, sprinkled with a small bit of footballing genius. He's not just box-office entertainment value, when he wants to be, the lad is world-class.

Brendan Rodgers is an extremely sensible manager, so much so that he's the last boss I'd expect to sanction a move for someone like Balotelli. I do believe he would have vetoed the transfer, had the fee not been so cheap. He admits it is a calculated risk. Balotelli has fallen out with basically every manager he's ever had in senior football. From Jose Mourinho at Inter to his friend and mentor Roberto Mancini at City, Cesare Prandelli at Italy for years and Massimo Allegri at Milan.

Even the great Mourinho could not solve Balotelli

The Liverpool squad at the moment seems to enjoy a great sense of harmony, understanding and general belief in themselves. Two years ago the idea of Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen holding their own against Manchester City's Yaya Toure enforced engine seemed ludicrous but that's exactly what they did for quite a while on Monday evening. Rodgers has instilled the belief in his players that they are quality players, that they do belong here and that has led to them reaching their max potential.

Balotelli has the potential to be the proverbial 'Cat Amongst the Pigeons'. With Suarez gone, this Liverpool side has no standout personality. Anfield hero, Steven Gerrard has relinquished his role somewhat to the Uruguayan in recent season. He is simply too far gone in his career to become the all-action talismanic midfielder he once was and has settled for a more supporting role. The likes of Coutinho, Sterling, Sturridge and Lallana aren't massive egos. They know it's a team game. Liverpool winning football matches comes before any sort of personal glory. I would credit Brendan Rodgers a lot for this mentality that the players seem to share.

Mario Balotelli has a massive ego, to the point where I really don't think team sports suit him. Manchester City, for two and a half years, were the Mario Balotelli show. He had a training ground scrap with just about every member of the squad (new team-mate Kolo Toure was one of his favourite sparring partners) and when that wasn't enough, he even had a knock with his boss Roberto Mancini. He's been described as the most frustrating player to play with by former team-mates. Jose Mourinho once said that if Balotelli even gave 50% in training he'd be the best player in the world. He is essentially an ADHD child with phenomenal talent who has never reached his potential. Think Matt Damon from Good Will Hunting.

Balotelli draws attention to himself like a magnet

On the plus side, Liverpool are getting one of the most naturally talented footballers in the world, who has just turned 24, for a mere £16m. If Balotelli can knuckle down, try to be a team-player, try to keep the controversy to a minimum, Rodgers will have just done an exceptional bit of business. Time will tell if Rodgers has the patience that the late Robin Williams showed towards his pet project Will Hunting. I can't imagine he does.

I'm not even sure Balotelli will be guaranteed first choice at Anfield. Rodgers' system worked very well last year because every player, right up to Luis Suarez, was willing to contribute to the defensive aspect of the game. Balotelli is not a tackler, not a presser and not one to track back to help win the ball back. If he is a starter, it will likely be in a central role with Sturridge pushed out wide. Sterling and Coutinho's roles in this are interchangeable.

What Liverpool now have is impressive strength in depth, enough to make them credible competitors in the Champions League this season. The line-up shown above does not contain £25m Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, Emre Can or Lazar Markovic. None of whom (except maybe Lambert) will be interested in settling for a spot on the bench. I wouldn't be surprised to see another new face arriving before Monday's deadline.

Angel Di Maria, Man United

Poor Fernando Torres no longer has to shoulder the burden of being the most expensive player in British football history. For almost four years now he has trudged lethargically around the pitch at Stamford Bridge as if weighed down by his heavy £50m price tag.  The honour now belongs to Angel Di Maria who this week moved from Real Madrid to Manchester United for £59.7m.

It's a bit of deja vu in terms of player's leaving Madrid. The club has a policy of buying the best available players every summer and totally disregarding the current talent in the squad. For Di Maria this year, ousted by James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos, read Mesut Ozil last year, dismissed as yesterday's news and ditched in favour of that season's 'must haves' who in this case were Isco and Gareth Bale.

I made an analogy last year when Ozil left Real Madrid for Arsenal that the Gunners signing an attacking midfielder when their defence was leaking goals was like buying a plasma screen TV for your bathroom when the toilet flush doesn't work. I think this metaphor is even more applicable in this case. United have lost three pieces of an already threadbare defence over the summer. Having spent £37m on Juan Mata barely six months ago, the acquisition of Di Maria does not seem the most logical purchase, but then again very little this club has done in the past fourteen months has made any sense whatsoever.

Di Maria is good. Really good. And in the form of his life too. Last year at Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti converted him from a pacy winger into more of a central player, using his electrifying pace to run at players from midfield.  It was the second Clasico of last season, the 4-3 game in March where he really grabbed everyone's attention. He looked considerably more of a threat to Barcelona that day than Ronaldo or Bale, creating two goals for Karim Benzema. He continued to impress in his new central role as Madrid stormed towards La Decima, putting in a Man of the Match performance in the Champions League final.

Following that he was off to the World Cup in Brazil where he put in some more impressive performances for Argentina. His injury in the first half of the quarter-final saw his competition ended and Argentina's hopes suffer a fatal blow. They made it to the final but following Di Maria's injury, they didn't manage a single goal for the rest of the tournament, a full 300 minutes of football. It's worth noting that Lionel Messi's performance levels dropped considerably once Di Maria was absent from the side.

For £60m United are getting a CL winner and a genuine star

So where will he fit it? Will United be able to wedge all the attacking talent they have into the same line-up? No they won't. But very few top sides can start all their best players all of the time. What United do have now is impressive strength in depth (at the front end of the pitch) so that should Rooney and van Persie suffer lengthy injuries as they did last winter, the attack will not be significantly blunted this time.

I don't think Di Maria will play the same role he did at Madrid, that was a very unique role which suited that team and those players. Modric and Alonso were content to sit deep and let him bomb forward from the middle. He had limited defensive duties in a team that dominated most games they played. I don't imagine that kind of role would work in the Premier League.

If Van Gaal persists with playing his current formation then you would think the only logical place for Di Maria is the attacking midfield spot currently held by Juan Mata. The Argentinian would bring more dynamism to this role which is something United have lacked in the opening games but I don't think dropping Mata is the answer and I don't believe Van Gaal does either. He's more likely to cram Di Maria in at wing-back or as one of his central midfielders than anything.

For me, the most appealing choice for United would be to drop this 3-4-1-2 formation before it does irreversible damage to this season. Van Gaal will likely revert to the formation he's used throughout his career, a 4-3-3 with two inside forwards. This position suits Di Maria infinitely more than the left-wing back he's likely to be assigned in the other formation. This formation would also require either Rooney or van Persie to play a slightly wider role on the other side. Rooney is the obvious choice for this as he's the more dynamic player and more likely to put in a defensive shift. I'm not talking about playing as a left midfielder, but more the type of role Hazard plays for Chelsea or Ronaldo for Madrid.

Doesn't look half bad.. except for Other

This does leave out Adnan Januzaj and Shinji Kagawa. Januzaj is a very exciting talent who will needs to be playing regularly in order to continue his development. It will be interesting to see how the boss manages his game-time over the coming year and in what role he plays him. Kagawa is fast running out of time to leave his mark on English football and can't have too many complaints about finding himself on the fringes of this side.

If Van Gaal does cut his losses and revert to this formation, I think it could work out very well. Provided of course United do manage to recruit another centre half and central midfield player before Monday's deadline. United's defence has looked so shaky this season. Relying on Jonny Evans as the lead centre-half is not even a position I'd expect a club like Sunderland to find themselves in. Nor would I expect Tom Cleverley to be in contention for a starting berth there. The problem areas need to be fixed before we can even begin to talk about United as contenders again. This plasma screen should give as clear a definition as any in the world but if the toilet doesn't flush, the bathroom is utterly redundant.

So who has done the better deal? For the amount of money they've paid and the potential of the player they've got, the answer is Liverpool. Di Maria is one of the best players in the world right now and United have a real gem of a player who will give them a more incisive edge than last season. But if Brendan Rodgers can curb Balotelli's wild side and exploit the great footballer within, there is no telling what they can achieve.

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