Breaking Down Mario Balotelli's Scorching Form for Club and Country

Sam LoprestiFeatured Columnist IIINovember 20, 2016

Watching Mario Balotelli has been a joy for any soccer fan over the last two months, particularly those of AC Milan.

Since arriving from Manchester City on the last day of the winter transfer window, Balotelli has scored 10 goals for club and country, and has easily been the best player in the Serie A over that stretch.

So what is the driving force behind the sudden turnaround from a dismal, regressive season at Eastlands to a run that has him looking like one of the best players on the planet?  The answer, as ever for Balotelli, is not a simple one. It has many parts, having to do with factors both on and off the field.

First and foremost at Milan, he's been playing regularly. At Man City, Balotelli only started seven games in the Premier League and came on seven more times as a sub. He also played in only four of the club's six UEFA Champions League games, all as a substitute. Between the EPL and the Champions League, Balotelli played only 680 of 2,700 possible minutes, a meager 25.2 percent.

By contrast, Balotelli has played 605 of the 720 minutes of Milan's matches since his transfer, 84 percent (since he was cup-tied, that number excludes the 180 minutes of the Champions League round of 16).  He also played 83 and 86 minutes, respectively, against Brazil and Malta for the national team.

It's obvious that having the time to get rhythm on the field is a key component of Baotelli's surge in form. Playing time is key to a striker's consistency, and Massimiliano Allegri has already given Balotelli almost as many minutes in eight games as Roberto Mancini gave him in 30 between the league and Europe.

Balotelli has also benefitted from the players around him at the San Siro. He is paired up front with another dynamic striker, Stephan El Shaarawy, whose style of play has looked a good complement to Super Mario with both club and country. Balotelli also arrived at Milan at the exact moment that Riccardo Montolivo's form turned the corner.

Following his free transfer from Fiorentina, Milan expected Montolivo to fill the regista role that the rossoneri had been struggling to fill since they made the ill-advised decision to allow Andrea Pirlo to go to Juventus on a Bosman after the 2010-11 season. But Montolivo struggled to make an impact in the first half of the season, and his failure contributed to Milan's horrific run of form that saw them bottom out at 15th in the table at the beginning of the season.

Since the winter break, however, Montolivo has been excellent, providing El Shaarawy and, since his arrival, Balotelli with excellent buildup play and getting them into positions to score. He only has one assist this year, but his play since the season resumed in 2013 has been instrumental in Milan's rise, and Balotelli, who is already familiar with Montolivo from Prandelli's starting XI in international play, has taken full advantage of it.

The other side of Balotelli's turnaround is totally mental. Mercurial as he is, Balotelli needs a good mindset to play well. His play toward the end of his time at Eastlands showed that he had no motivation whatsoever. Many felt that having Mancini, his first manager at Inter, at Manchester City would be a good thing for Balotelli after his bad relationship with Jose Mourinho.

However, Mancini has a confrontational management style and often calls his players out publicly, as he did this past week when Vincent Kompany played in World Cup qualifying for Belgium after spending a significant time on the sidelines with an injury. The relationship between Mancini and Balotelli has deteriorated over the years as Balotelli's odd behavior continued. In early January it came to a head when the two had a physical altercation during a training session.

Interestingly, witnesses say that it was Balotelli who kept better control of his emotions during the dustup. Still, it certainly signaled the end of Balotelli's time at the Etihad—he played just one minute between the fight and his transfer.

By contrast, the move to Milan had all the trappings to refocus Balotelli's mind. Despite starting his career at Inter, Balotelli grew up cheering for the rossoneri, and famously wore a red-and-black shirt on a television show while still playing for the nerazzurri. When he arrived back at the San Siro, Milan had recently gone on a tear, and he was hailed by many fans as a final piece to the puzzle to complete Milan's rebirth.

That may be an overly optimistic view of Milan's situation (they desperately need a top-level center-back) the fan adoration, combined with Allegri's more laid-back approach to dealing with his players, has set Balotelli's mind right. Returning to his home country to play for his boyhood club has given him a motivation that you didn't see in him even when he played at Euro 2012.

Balotelli's arrival at Milan presented him with the perfect situation, both on the field and off, to succeed where he failed at Manchester City. Super Mario has grabbed it with both hands, to the tune of 10 goals in nine games for club and country. The question now is how much further the 22-year-old can go.


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