clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tactical Analysis: Balotelli, Liverpool, and the Two-Striker Formation

New, 3 comments

With Mario Balotelli set to complete his 16 million pound move to Liverpool, questions arise as to how manager Brendan Rodgers plans to organize his side tactically to accommodate both the talented newcomer and his new teammate, Daniel Sturridge - fresh off a breakout performance last season for the Reds.

Justin K. Aller

We're smarter than we used to be. At least as far as sports are concerned. With advanced metrics and a greater general statistical awareness, never before have we been able to form a more coherent opinion on a player and his performance. Nor have we ever been more well-equipped to correctly quantify such performances.

This is the era of soccer that striker Mario Balotelli and his 16 million pound to Liverpool exist in. Within hours of his deal to Merseyside hitting the rumor mill, fans and pundits alike had armed themselves with this stat or that fact to support their opinion of the Italian striker – quoting goal conversion rates or his number of dribbles per 90 minutes.

Given his history, these opinions have been, obviously, mixed. For some, Balotelli is a misunderstood genius – treated unjustly by the old-fashioned establishment of the sport despite his obvious talent. For others, he's a moody malcontent whose ability pales in comparison to his antics.

But despite the disparity in how we view Balotelli, our view of the deal itself has been surprisingly singular – largely as a result of the astoundingly low fee that he has commanded. Because, in this post-Moneyball Era of sports culture, we know a good deal when we see one. And 16 million pounds for a player of Balotelli's talent, just a year after Bale went for 100 million pounds, is silly good.

But while we are increasingly knowledgeable of how well a player compares to his respective fee, it comes at a cost. The amount of data – from the opinions of the scouting community to those of the statisticians – perhaps blinds us to another set of vital questions: How does the player fit? How does he complement the previously existing squad? What role will he play?

For while it's all well and good to prove to be shrewd in the transfer window, it means nothing if it fails to improve the club's performance during the ensuing year. Signing Mesut Ozil may have been a good piece of business, but with a host of solid attack-minded midfielders already on the roster and a more defensive midfielder needed, was it truly the right move for Arsenal to make?

And while Angel Di Maria is a considerable talent, how does he fit into Manchester United's 3-5-2 system? And how does he solve Louis van Gaal's defensive woes? All too often, these questions are seldom asked during the transfer window. And ones that need to be asked of Balotelli's move to Anfield. But first, let's take a look at what has offered his clubs in years past.

Dribbles, Shots, and the "Classic Number Nine"

Balotelli has often been slapped with the label of the "prototypical striker" and "classic number nine." While these clichés mean well, they do a bit of a disservice to Balotelli's game. His strength and ability to finish are indeed reminiscent of the skill set that was often sought out for the role of striker in years past. But he also offers much more than that.

While his pass completion percentage won't win him any comparisons to David Silva, he is still quite quite adept at linking up with teammates and contributing to build-up play. He even contributed more key passes and created more chances per 90 minutes than his new teammate, Daniel Sturridge. In other words, he's no Luis Suarez when it comes to creating opportunities. But he's certainly capable of playing in a fluid, pass and move type of attack.

And even while his considerable size might led some to conclude that he's more of a threat in the air than with the ball at his feet, the opposite proves to be true. Compared to Falcao and Karim Benzema – two other strikers who garner the "classic number nine" label – he lacks in the aerial department – winning only 35% of his headers last season.

However, when it comes to taking on defenders with his dribbling, Balotelli is one of the best in the game. Since his transfer to AC Milan, he averages between two and three dribbles per 90 minutes – far outproducing both his fellow "classic number nines." For further comparison's sake, Theo Walcott, a player often cited as one of the fastest in the game, averages 1.85 successful dribbles per game.

Shooting-wise, Balotelli is more than productive enough to warrant a 16 million pound price tag. From his time at Inter as a 19 year-old to his previous season at AC Milan, he's been an accurate shooter and a reliable goalscorer – even averaging an impressive 0.94 goals per ninety in the half season following his transfer back to Italy.

But what's most intriguing about Balotelli's statistical profile is the number of shots he takes – far outpacing most strikers with about six shots per 90. On one hand, this is a very impressive number. After all, the more shots a striker takes, the more goals he scores – usually.

But when we examine where these shots are coming from, it reveals a cause for concern. For whereas his shots inside the box compare favorably with Sturridge, his shots outside the box sit at around four per game since his transfer to AC Milan – an astounding figure. And one that demonstrates that the Italian striker has developed into quite the wasteful shooter.

However, considering that such a dramatic change in his shooting habits accompanied his move to AC Milan, some have claimed that it was their tactical system, and not Balotelli himself, that prompted the change. With that said, let's take a further look at his 2013-14 season.

Balotelli's time at Milan: A Tale of Two Formations

While playing in the Serie A, a league with opponents offering defensive variations of their own, the most relevant change in Balotelli's playing environment came from how his own team was structured tactically. While Mancini's Manchester City operated with largely the same formation and playing style from game to game, Milan switched quite a bit more frequently.

Sometimes, Balotelli would operate as a single-striker – offering him a more familiar environment. At other times, he would operate in a two-striker formation – working beside Kaka or Alessandro Matri. Obviously, the tactical demands of playing in a two-striker formation vary from those of the one-striker.

At its best, the two-striker formation would limit the defensive attention paid to Balotelli – with Matri or Kaka occupying the other central defender. But, conversely, at its worst, it would limit the space Balotelli would have to play centrally. And forced out wide, he would – hypothetically – be forced into worse shooting locations.

With these factors in mind, I've separated Balotelli's matches last season with AC Milan broadly into two categories – those in which he played as the lone striker and those in which he played in more of a two-striker formation.

It is important to note that, in my comparison, I've relied upon heat maps, and not Squawka or Whoscored's "official" formation, for my classification of his matches. For while Kaka may have been listed as a midfielder, he often took up more advanced positions – playing as a second striker to Balotelli. As a further note, I've only included matches where he started – as tactical designations become a bit trickier late in games following substitutions.

The results, shown below, are intriguing to say the least.


As a lone striker, Balotelli was one of the best in Europe last season with his 0.842 goals per ninety placing him among the most productive at his position. But in a two-striker set-up, he was wasteful – firing off over four shots outside the box per 90 and hitting the target only a quarter of the time.

Consider AC Milan's 1-4 loss to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League. On paper, it was a 4-2-3-1 formation that Balotelli should have been accustomed to. But in actuality, with Kaka pushing forward, it was more of a 4-2-2-2. Look at the action map below.


Action map of Balotelli and Kaka in 1-4 loss to Atletico Madrid

Not only did Kaka act as a second striker – taking away space for Balotelli to operate centrally – he even spent more time in Atletico's penalty box. With Kaka pressing forward, Balotelli was forced to either play out wide on the right flank or drop deep to the center of the pitch. The result was a Champions League exit and a performance that saw Balotelli firing off just one shot on target.

But, on the other hand, when he was given the space to operate as the lone striker, he thrived more often than not. Let's consider Milan's 1-1 draw against Ajax in Champions League group play.


Robinho's heat map in a 1-1 draw against Ajax

With Kaka out and Robinho operating in a deeper play-making role, Balotelli was left with a considerable amount of space in the opponent's attacking third. The results are telling. Three of his four shots came from inside the box. All three found the target and one found the back of the net. Milan may have only managed a draw, but it was quietly one of Balotelli's most impressive performances of the year.

But why did Balotelli seem to struggle much more often in a two-striker formation? Let's consider once again his number of dribbles per game. While the statistic itself may be a bit misleading (Balotelli is likely not better in one-on-one situations than Theo Walcott), it reveals a telling facet of his playing style.

For while Balotelli can link-up reasonably well in build-up play, his tendency is to dribble the ball and create opportunities for himself. To dribble and create for himself, he needs space. And in a two-striker formation – with Kaka occupying more space in the center of the pitch – Balotelli was left without the space he usually has. With less space, the Italian striker was forced to lash more shots from outside the box than he usually does.

No two formations are created equal

One of the subtle benefits of selling Suarez in the summer was the ability to return to a one-striker formation, which would have undoubtedly offered the back line more cover and protection. But with Balotelli's evident struggles in a two-striker system, Brendan Rodgers is now faced with the issue of finding a place for the Italian in his starting eleven.

To play him as the lone striker would be to unsettle Daniel Sturridge from a position that he enjoyed a considerable amount of success in last season. With Sturridge a near lock for the starting eleven, the Englishman would be forced out wide – in a position he expressed a strong distaste for during his time at Chelsea. And at any rate, playing him out wide would leave Liverpool exposed at the back – with Sturridge likely to spend more time getting forward then tracking back.

But considering Balotelli's infamous reputation, Liverpool are unlikely to have taken a chance on him if they simply saw him as a rotational option. And with the earlier pursuit of QPR striker Loic Remy, it appears that Rodgers has developed an affinity for two-striker set-ups. All evidence points to Rodgers wanting Balotelli to start beside Sturridge – which, given the statistical evidence cited above, is a bit worrisome. 16 million pounds may be cheap, but not if it creates more tactical issues than it solves.

However, no two clubs are the same tactically-speaking. While Liverpool's formation in the months ahead may come to resemble last year's AC Milan squad on paper, the players that populate it put their own unique stamp on it on the field. For instance, consider Daniel Sturridge and Kaka. While the Brazilian is a talented player in his own right, he hardly seems a complementary fit for a striker of Balotelli's skill set. With the Italian preferring to play with the ball at his feet, the creative Kaka too often got in the way of Balotelli.

But with Sturridge, the opposite could very well be the case. With his speed and experience playing off the ball opposite Suarez last season, Sturridge may very well complement Balotelli much more effectively than Kaka. Using his pace to stretch the field, Sturridge could open up more space for Balotelli. And conversely, Balotelli's proclivity for dribbling could draw more defenders and open up space for Sturridge and his clever off-ball positioning.

Balotelli is certainly not without his faults – especially in a two-striker system. But if anybody's to get the most of him in such a system, it may be Brendan Rodgers and Daniel Sturridge.

All statistics courtesy of