Mario Balotelli’s apparent imminent signing at Liverpool looks like the most surprising transfer of the summer, especially after Brendan Rodger’s explicitly denied any interest in the Italian during the summer tour of the United States. So why have Liverpool reneged on their initial public denial?
I have detailed figures going back to 10/11 so I can take a fairly comprehensive look at what he will bring to an all ready formidable Reds attack. So what is Balotelli’s style? Well he won’t be a forward who will create a lot of chances for his fellow teammates. The average key passes per 90 figure for a forward in my 10 season database is 1.4 per 90. Balotelli has hit somewhere between 0.7 and 1.6 in his time between City and Milan per season. He’ll probably create at around the rate an average forward would so it’s not really a big tool in his attacking toolbox. His expected assists over the last 4 years has ranged between 0.10 and 0.13 per 90 with the average amongst strikers being at 0.14.
Does he get involved in the attacking play? Will he make something happen in the final third? Well the average number of attempted passes per 90 into the final third for top strikers is around 14, Balotelli will give you circa 15 per 90. He likes to drift out to the right and come inside, but that’s pretty standard for a right-footed attacker to drift to that side and come in on his favourite shooting foot.
These average figures are in no way a reflection of the quality of the player, it’s just a stylistic guide, if you will. His dribbles per 90 are a little more interesting though. Whether it was tactical or not, he had a crazy first half year from the January transfer window at Milan, where he hit 6.2 attempted dribbles per 90. In his City days he was averaging around 3.3 dribbles per 90, then last season at Milan he hit 4.9 dribbles per 90. It would be interesting to know from somebody more clued up on Italian football whether this was more of a systemic issue or an individual/psychological one. Did he simply get more confidence?
I’ve seen a lot of tweets on social media regarding Balotelli’s very poor shot conversion over a number of years. Shot conversion isn’t repeatable (expected goals is, somewhat) and thus what a player converts at in year N hasn’t much bearing on what a player might do in year N+1. Is 7% shot conversion bad? Well maybe, but in simple terms, think of this, 7% of 100 shots gives you a different goal return as 7% of 300 shots. So is 7% conversion still bad? As always, it depends on the context.
I have expected goal numbers for Balotelli over his last 4 seasons. So I’ll divide that time up into time he spent at Man City and time he spent at AC Milan. Looking at his numbers for City in the 12/13 season (before he was transferred to Milan in the January transfer window) seems a little pointless, as he played less than 600 minutes, and there’s just too much sample size issues, not to mention strength of schedule bias.
It’s worth remembering Balotelli was 20-21 years of age in these two seasons in the Premiership. Ok so in his first season he played less than 30% of the available minutes, but scored 0.34 goals P90, expected goals per 90 was at 0.43, and shots per 90 at 3.8, these are all very good baseline numbers for a 20 year old, and kind of gave you the feeling something big was about to happen. And it did.
Things really took off for Balotelli in the 11/12 season, which of course was Man City’s dramatic tittle-winning year. Again though, the problem here was he just didn’t get enough minutes. Having said that these are some elite numbers for a striker. In the last 4 season in the Premier League, of the 486 players to play more than 900 minutes and take >30 shots only 6 of those players had a better expected goals per 90 greater than 0.69. Both his goals per 90 and shots per 90 also went to an elite level in 11/12, which really was an indication that Balotelli’s career was on an upward curve. Onward to Milan.
In 12/13 something happened to Balotelli’s shot volume. He starting hitting 5.6 shots per 90. Over the last 2 seasons in the top 5 leagues only Suarez can better that number in a single season. But why had Balotelli suddenly become a shot monster? It’s difficult to figure out whether this was part of his natural progression as a striker or that it was something more systemic that brought it out in him at Milan. Milan weren’t very good last year. It doesn’t look like it was brought about by position either, as I could only find 5 occasions in his Milan career where he started slightly wider of another striker, incidentally those times the system used was a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond (Brendan Rodgers take note). Though this doesn’t take into account positional changes during matches, so might be a touch misleading.
Balotelli maintained his expected goals per 90 but his Xgoals per shot dramatically decreased from his time at City. Plummeting from a high of 0.126 expected goals per shot to just 0.08. On a per shot basis Balotelli had lower value chances, but was able to maintain his XGoals per 90 numbers by way of increasing his shot volume. He went from taking around 40% of his shots from prime at City to taking just 20% of his shots from prime at Milan. In that same year at Milan he took an incredible 75% of his shots from outside the box. Having done all of that he still kept his goals per 90 at a very decent 0.47.
Again there was a similar pattern last season. Expected goals was maintained above 0.4 per 90, not elite in itself, but a decent return for a striker, considering you’d expect your striker to outperform Xgoals in probably 3 out of every 4 seasons. In the context of a full season, if he played 38 90’s that would garner him 15 goals. His shots per 90 increased again in 13/14 to nearly 5.8 per 90, which is the highest of any player playing more than 900 minutes in the last 2 seasons in the top 5 leagues. And for the first time in 4 seasons Balotelli had managed to play more than 2,000 minutes in a single season. Again he took a measly 20% of his shots from prime, and a massive 65% of shots from outside the box. Except this time he outperformed his expected goals from outside the box due to scoring 4 goals from 41 free kicks. It’s unclear whether this was skill or luck as the previous season seen just a 1 goal return from 34 free kicks.
I am always wary when I see player score a number of goals from outside the box. So I tend to check their past record to see if they’ve previously shown any history of scoring regularly from outside. Balotelli’s done it just once in the last 4 seasons, which suggests to me he might have got a bit lucky with those long range efforts last season.
So in conclusion, what are the numbers telling us. He won’t create for his teammates at a high level. He will attempt a lot of dribbles and try to make something happen himself, and while he won’t get involved in the build up play to the extent of a striker like Suarez, he will get involved. He’s become a shot monster over the last 2 seasons, my instinct tells me this is just a natural progression for him rather than a systemic one brought about by Milan’s tactics or deficiencies. Systemic or not though, it’s a worrying trend only 20% of his shots came from dangerous areas and on average at Milan 70% of his shots came from outside the box. That’s not where you want your strikers taking shots from. Lastly on the negative side, for whatever reason, he’s played less than 50% of the available minutes to him over the last 4 seasons. This is a big worry.
On the plus side, and I feel this is a major plus, he’s regularly managed greater than 0.4 expected goals per season. In my database I could only find one other player who managed that, and it was Van Persie. Neither Suarez or Sturridge could. A caveat applies to Balotelli’s lack of minutes in some of those seasons though. Apart from 10/11 at City, he’s also managed greater than 0.4 goals per 90 in each of his 3 other seasons. So his output is there, and this is really promising.
Weaknesses: reliability and consistency in getting minutes on the pitch. Too many shots from low value areas.
Strengths: Dribbles, shot volume (but needs to be proportioned better), consistent in expected goals and goals per 90.
Verdict: There’s a very, very good player in there. The question is can Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool bring it out of him at a consistent level. Personally, he’s never really impressed me when I’ve seen him play, I always thought, hmm “much ado about nothing”. Maybe I watched the wrong games though. But at 24 years of age, and at a good price the risk to reward ratio is very positive. If I was asked for one word to describe his career to date? Erratic. And therein lies the crux of the matter.