Wednesday 22 January 2020

Dion Fanning: Rodgers confuses stronger and weaker, character and leader

Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers
Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers
Mario Balotelli is unveiled as a Liverpool player at the club's Melwood training ground
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Dion Fanning

Mario Balotelli is one of a number of players at the club who, in football's cliche, can be anything they want to be.

Last weekend Mario Balotelli's agent Mino Raiola gave an interview explaining his client's decision to sign for Liverpool. "I sought out for him a team where he can be an important element without being asked to be a leader," he said.

If anything has stood out from Liverpool's early season performances, especially their collapse at the Etihad on Monday night, it is their need for leaders. Brendan Rodgers has insisted that Liverpool will be stronger in the absence of Luis Suarez but even if they find a way of matching the goals he scored and the assists he provided, they are still searching for a way to replace the force of his personality.

Balotelli brings personality, but that is different. He is a reminder that there are still characters in football and it isn't necessarily a good thing. There are sexist characters, racist characters, all kinds of characters bantering all the time, convinced of their own hilarity and the necessity of providing a bit of fun.

Balotelli is a different kind of character. He is doomed to be mentioned with that knowing chuckle that indicates the speaker is ok with whatever wackiness might come up in the course of a discussion about Balotelli. Mario, they will say, their voice trailing off as they shake their head in wonderment, a sign that they are taking us into a wacky zone which encompasses all past and future acts of wackiness.

So far, Balotelli has not been able to escape this prison. He could be seen as a comedian who craves a serious role except it is hard to know what Balotelli craves. Whatever it is, he remains a seductive concept for a manager, especially a manager like Rodgers who believes "we are all on a pilgrimage here on earth to maximise what we can".

Balotelli's pilgrimage has brought maximum publicity for a sparing use of his talent but it is his ability that tantalises. Perhaps Rodgers can draw what Alex Ferguson drew from Eric Cantona, although Balotelli is more likely to be reminiscent of Stan Collymore.

He is capable of brilliance and at White Hart Lane he will be released from the kind of expectation that usually drags him down. Right now he is free again, free from the monotonous demands of the serious professional, the realisation that football, like life, is just one damn thing after another.

Balotelli has been liberated from the responsibility of being a leader when Liverpool need a replacement for Suarez and some strong personalities, not just colourful ones.

Liverpool have a new defence which will take time to develop an understanding, it is said. Right now, they appear to have the same level of understanding as the old Liverpool defence which conceded 50 goals in the Premier League last season and two or more in 16 league matches.

That aspect of Rodgers' philosophy remained unaltered last Monday night, excused because this was a new defence even if it had immediately absorbed the key defensive principles of a Rodgers side.

Without Suarez, those principles will come under greater scrutiny, as will the man who needs to demonstrate that when he says Liverpool will be stronger without Suarez, the word he isn't actually reaching for is 'weaker'.

Brendan Rodgers is Liverpool's dominant personality now, a role he assumes with a certain magnificence, if also a certain awareness of his magnificence. He has done much to persuade people that the loss of Suarez will not be felt. He has embarked on a great offensive over the summer and, at times, he appeared intent on ensuring Liverpool overcame the loss of their most important player through the force of his soaring rhetoric alone.

English football is searching for a new doyen and Rodgers looks comfortable with the title. He has assumed the position as a magus of the Premier League, a man with many wise and beautiful things to say and many wise and beautiful ways of saying them.

Last season he fulfilled the role thrust upon him with effortless charm until the final weeks when he left Selhurst Park talking about a failure of game management. This came as something of a shock as Liverpool had been managing games the same way all season, conceding goals with ease and relying on Suarez and their other forwards to overcome this difficulty. At Selhurst Park it was a surprise to learn that this was not part of his philosophy but was instead due to a failure of the players.

Rodgers, at least, is in a rich vein of form, effortlessly able to deal with the contradiction of categorically stating Liverpool would not be interested in signing Balotelli with the categorical decision to sign Balotelli. These are minor matters for a man who can reinvent himself at will, who always takes a global perspective and can be utterly convincing even when the thing he says disagrees with the last thing he said.

Last season Rodgers could say what he liked because he had a leader in Suarez whose genius allowed Liverpool to overcome the structural weaknesses of the side.

His sale allowed Liverpool to address those structural concerns amid promises that this season we would see a Liverpool which would cheer all those who cherish the style of football Brendan Rodgers is associated with.

Nobody cherishes it more than Rodgers himself and as he explained away Liverpool's defeat to City on Monday night, he was, as ever, preternaturally soothing.

Liverpool had controlled much of the first half and, even though they had lost, there was no need to be concerned as they were three points better off than after the corresponding two fixtures last season. In other words, they hadn't lost at home to Southampton.

If they lose at White Hart Lane, the Corresponding Fixture Index would be less attractive. Balotelli is capable of keeping Liverpool ahead for the time being. He is one of a number of players at the club who, in football's cliche, can be anything they want to be. Liverpool may need something more. They may need players who know exactly what they want to be.

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