While a lot of Liverpool fans are taking up residence behind the couch, lying in wait for the Balotelli roadside bomb to tear apart the season (and I'm not saying they're wrong), Monday's loss highlighted my biggest fear about the season. And that's the center of midfield, specifically the holding role.
With Steven Gerrard starting, and Lucas not even in the 18, the writing is clearly on the wall. Sometime this week will see the Brazilian heading off to Napoli (where the slower pace I'm sure will do him well) and Steven Gerrard the main (and only?) option as the deepest lying midfielder. Sadly, both the opening weekend against Southampton and the trip to Eastlands saw Gerrard fail to track a runner that eventually led to a goal (though Lucas was just as much to blame for the Saints' only tally). While everyone was in a rush to laud Gerrard's work at the end of last season, I haven't forgotten the first half of last season when the captain might as well have brought a lawn chair out with him, such was his movement and effort. As I've said before, last season really kicked off for me when Lucas-Allen-Henderson was the midfield troika, and I'm still not convinced that isn't the best option now.
Which kills me to say, and I also know is impossible. Gerrard has to be in the 11, and he obviously can't be the psychotic box-to-box midfielder we came to know and love. So there's really nowhere else to put him but in a deeper lying position. But without Lucas, who is his backup? Can? Seems like an awful lot to ask of him. Allen? He can fill in there from time to time, but we saw two seasons ago what happens when he's deepest for an extended period of time. He's best when he's bracketed.
However, my fear is that the same could be said for Gerrard. And the manager has been loathe to try that since installing Gerrard as the deepest of the triangle. All of Lucas's appearances toward the end of last year came more advanced than he'd ever been in his career, with decidedly mixed results. What happens if teams continue to expose Gerrard's lack of mobility, as Man City's constant movement did at times? Will Can or Allen slotted next to him be enough? Can Gerrard cancel out those holes with his killer passes upfield to a streaking Sterling or Sturridge (notice I didn't put Balotelli, because he rarely streaks)? Remains to be seen.
-As for Balotelli, fortune favors the brave? That's what I'm clinging to. While I think most of Balotelli's antics and their effect on a team are always overblown (seriously, how does passing out 100s in the city center or setting off fireworks in your bathroom upset teammates), the performances on the pitch are another matter. The thing with Mario is that you can pretty much tell within a match's first five to ten minutes if he's up for it or not. And when he's not, he becomes stationary and dumb. Seeing as how Liverpool's attack is based on movement and speed, that's not exactly the best combination.
Still, it's not like he's played in a team like this before. Mourinho's Inter were a Mourinho team, and the forward is asked to do as much defensive work as attacking, and considering Balotelli was a teenager you knew how that would go. Mancini's City weren't too much different really, and Milan didn't have the quality that Liverpool possess (which is really weird to write). Italy's national team have been based around Pirlo's freekicks and longballs, though they've featured some pretty swift players up front as well. Perhaps when surrounded by players who attack at pace he will be forced to do so as well. And Rickie Lambert is hardly a speed-merchant and fit well into a similar Southampton side. It can be done.
However, Balotelli brings so many questions, and how he affects the system. Will Liverpool go back to a diamond midfield with both him and Sturridge up top? If so, how do Henderson, Lallana, Sterling, Coutinho, Markovi, Can, Allen, and Gerrard fit into only four spots? And if they stick with a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3, which of Balotelli or Sturridge switch out wide? Neither of them would be exactly thrilled with that. Or does one go to the bench? That would go worse.
All that said, I'm probably buying a #45 shirt tomorrow.