Mario Balotelli is potentially one of the most talented Italian players of his generation. Having made the breakthrough at Inter the tender age of 17, he is now a regular member of the first-team squad. To be in such a position at a club of Inter’s size, and at such an early age, is testament to the young man’s ability. Yet many non-Interisti may now be ruing the Coach he finds himself under, and the club he is playing for.
It all started so well. Previous Coach Roberto Mancini gave him his debut in December 2007, in a 2-0 victory over Cagliari. His first start followed soon after, in the TIM Coppa Italia Cup encounter against Reggina, where he scored his first two goals for the club. He made a further 13 appearances that season, and ended with a grand total of seven goals. The majority of his playing time was spent as a striker – his favoured position – although he did start some out wide, most notably the 2-2 home draw with Siena which delayed the crowning of the club as champions last season.
The change in management over the summer has, perhaps unsurprisingly, had an adverse affect on Balotelli. For those who were excited about the impact he could potentially have on the national side, there was always a concern about how he would fit into Coach José Mourinho’s favoured 4-3-3 system. With Zlatan Ibrahimović a guaranteed starter as the lone striker, the only way to accommodate Super Mario was on the flanks. Such is his adaptability, he can play there and offer the team a powerful option on either side. Nevertheless, the player has previously stated his desire to play as a striker, and his goal-scoring record when utilised in his favourite position certainly adds weight to his claims.
The Special One’s decision to change his system midway through the first half of the season brought new hope. With his wingers apparently underperforming (Balotelli being one of those), he switched to a 4-4-2 – a system less dependent on the wide players due to the extra striker, which then became a 4-3-1-2. With space for an extra striker, there was now an opportunity for the Italian-born Ghanaian to play in the position he wants. However, he has only started five games all season, two of which were up-front. The first was at home to Catania, the second away to Anorthosis Famagusta, in which he duly scored his first and so far only goal of the season. The remaining three starts have seen the 18-year-old used in wide positions in a 4-3-3.
Balotelli found himself out of the squad, and back in the Primavera side a week ago, where he started up-front and scored two in their game against Treviso on the 7th December. Mourinho’s reason for banishing the starlet to the youth team was a supposed poor attitude in training, backed up by a rather extravagant claim that “if he trained at just 50%, he would be one of the best players in the world”. He managed to reclaim his place in the squad, but only came on as a second half substitute during the game against Chievo at the weekend.
The situation of playing time has now reached the stage where a move for the player may now be the best option. Fans that are desperate to see him win his first senior cap for the national team will no doubt be hoping a January or summer transfer are on the cards. While it is likely any switch will be a step down for the youngster, there’s no doubt time on the pitch will aid his development. As big a star as he could possibly be for both club and country, he will not shine whilst sitting on the bench.
That opens the question of which club he would join if he were to leave the Nerazzurri. Reports have been floating around since last year that Chelsea are interested in acquiring the Sicilian. A move to last year’s beaten Champions League finalists is unlikely to be the best move for his career, especially as he’s likely to spend as much time playing out wide as he has under Mourinho. Though with Inter’s Portuguese boss reportedly interested in Didier Drogba, it would not be at all surprising to see stories of a potential swap deal emerge.
Back in the peninsula, it is difficult to see which club would take Balotelli on a permanent deal – an issue which brings us nicely to the possibility of a loan deal. This gives both parties the best of both worlds. Inter hold on to a player who could go on to become one of the best in Europe, whilst Balotelli is given the chance to get some playing time in his best position and enhance his international ambitions. Neither side is benefitting from the current predicament. The U-21 international is simply working off the scraps that are given to him by his Coach, and then being judged on the 30 minutes he gets as a substitute. The former Porto Tactician simply may not be the best Coach for Super Mario at this stage of his career.
Chelsea fans will undoubtedly point to Joe Cole, a player whose development into an international star many credit to Mourinho. Nevertheless, not every player is the same. What apparently worked with the England winger is not guaranteed to work with Italy’s own starlet. One only has to look at the form of Cole under Mourinho’s successor, Avram Grant. The player himself claimed at the time he was playing as well as he could remember, arguably free of the shackles he had to contend with under the Champions League winner.
A change of Coach is unlikely to occur any time soon in the blue half of Milan, so a change of scenery for the player is the only other option. It would be a tragedy if a talent such as Balotelli’s was wasted. A player who has the ability to lead both Inter and Italy to further success, but who at the moment is more likely to be leading the Primavera side than the first-team.