Lack of Liverpool Width Against Hull Adds to Mario Balotelli’s Struggles

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Mario Balotelli made it eight games without a goal in the 0-0 draw with Hull City on Saturday, but Liverpool’s set up didn’t help the Italian, writes Jack Lusby.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, October 25, 2014: Liverpool's Mario Balotelli looks dejected as his side draw 0-0 with Hull City during the Premier League match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Liverpool’s run of poor form continued at Anfield on Saturday with a 0-0 draw against Premier League mid-tablers Hull City.

The Reds came closest to a win, with Steve Bruce’s side not offering much in the attacking third, but their profligacy continued as the Tigers held on with a valiant defensive display.

However, whilst the result was drab and disappointing, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers can have no complaints, as his neglect of the lack of width in his side saw Mario Balotelli once more devoid of support and, therefore, devoid of goals.

 

Tactical Layout

As Rodgers continued to accommodate the absence of star striker Daniel Sturridge due to injury, the Northern Irishman set out with a 4-3-3 formation at Anfield on Saturday.

A midfield three of Emre Can, Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen saw Jordan Henderson rested, with Allen taking his place as the most advanced of the central midfielders.

Ahead of the trio were wide men Adam Lallana, on the left, and Raheem Sterling, on the right, flanking lone striker Mario Balotelli.

Hull boss Bruce opted for a 5-4-1 formation, utilising the strength in his wing-back options.

Ahmed Elmohamady and Robbie Brady adopted the right and left defensive flanks respectively, pushing forward when able to support the attacking front and providing diligent cover at the back.

Ahead of the pair, and their back three of Alex Bruce, James Chester and Curtis Davies, Bruce deployed a four man midfield of Mohamed Diame, Tom Huddlestone, Jake Livermore and Hatem Ben Arfa.

Ben Arfa, in the No. 10, played off Uruguayan summer signing and lone striker Abel Hernandez.

 

Mario Balotelli

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, October 25, 2014: Liverpool's manager Brendan Rodgers and Mario Balotelli against Hull City during the Premier League match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Of course, despite Liverpool’s recent defensive woes and a run of muted form, the main focus of criticism on Merseyside remains Balotelli.

Balotelli is regularly criticised for his work rate, but this remains unfounded and against Hull this continued; according to WhoScored, Balotelli made more defensive actions (3) than Sterling and Lallana, and the same amount as Allen.

Continuing to struggle in his role as a lone striker however, Balotelli was offered little support from the flanks—this is crucial if the Italian is to succeed in the absence of Daniel Sturridge.

In maintaining that Balotelli will “adapt” to this role, Rodgers recently claimed that he “spoke to him a lot about getting in the box,” and therefore on the end of crosses.

The two players charged with chiefly supporting the 24-year-old were Lallana and Sterling, but both failed to create the space and provide that service that would see Balotelli thrive.

This is no surprise, of course, as both players are most effective in a central role, and we have seen that so far from Lallana in a Liverpool shirt and with the development of Sterling into a devastating No. 10.

The deployment of Allen as the most advanced of the three central midfielders contributed to this. The Welshman is not effective in this attacking prong, and as such Lallana and Sterling were drawn to the inside in order to create chances.

Lack of Width vs. Hull

This could be seen on 13 minutes, as a through-ball from Sterling (circled right) found Balotelli in space, but dragged the Italian too wide and his shot was comfortably saved at the near post.

Lallana (circled left) found himself in a position square of Balotelli in the box, and the striker was a victim of his desperation, instead going for a shot from a nigh-impossible angle.

Balotelli was left to feed off scraps in the first 60 minutes — it has been made abundantly clear that the Italian is not an off-the-shoulder centre-forward — and Rodgers is continuing to misuse his £16 million signing.

 

Philippe Coutinho

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, September 13, 2014: Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho Correia in action against Aston Villa during the Premier League match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Much of this was resolved with the introduction of Coutinho.

After a barnstorming cameo against QPR the previous weekend, and a stand-out showing early on against Madrid at Anfield in Wednesday’s Champions League clash, it came as a surprise that Liverpool No. 10 Coutinho was left on the bench against Hull.

This was particularly baffling given he and Jordan Henderson were both substituted on 67 minutes against Madrid, presumably in order to save their legs for Saturday.

Once more, however, the Brazilian had to settle for a place on the bench; theories remain that Coutinho is a better impact player, but given his role against Madrid, these are unfounded.

Replacing the ineffective Lallana on 61 minutes, Coutinho provided Liverpool with further attacking impetus, with Bruce’s side rather fortunate to hold on for the stalemate.

This saw Balotelli come in to life, too.

Not least this could be seen with a fantastic charge down the left flank by the 22-year-old, aided by a one-two with Gerrard, in stoppage time.

Coutinho’s cross, whipped in from the outside of his boot, almost gifted Balotelli with a rare positive headline—were it not for another great save by Jakupovic, the Italian would have netted the latest of winners and sealed the three points for the Reds.

According to WhoScored, Coutinho made five crosses in his 30 minutes on the pitch, more than both Sterling (4) and Lallana (2).

The introduction of Coutinho, arguably man of the match despite an appearance lasting around half an hour, provided Balotelli with the service he requires. Having Lambert alongside also provided support and it’s increasingly clear he needs to be played with a strike partner.

Rodgers’ mistake here was to leave Coutinho out in the first place, and isolate Balotelli up front again.

Should Philippe Coutinho have started against Hull City to get the best out of Mario Balotelli? Let us know in the comments below.

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