Mario Balotelli is a legend.
Not in the Hall of Fame sense of the term, though. Not in a kind of jager-bomb swilling, rugby-player sort of way either. He’s a legend in the same way the Loch Ness Monster is a legend. Tales are told of him, but it’s difficult to know what to believe.
One such story claimed the Italian striker handed £2,000 in cash to a homeless man. Another said he set his house on fire after attempting to set fireworks out the bathroom window.
Some stories were true; others turned out to the false. But one thing has never been in any doubt: Balotelli is an exceptional football player.
He is so exceptional that he carries an entire nation’s hopes on his shoulders into the World Cup, with Azzurri coach Cesare Prandelli expected to build his Italian attack around Balotelli.
As reported by Rob Shepherd of the Daily Mail, Balotelli is the Gunners' number one transfer target this summer as they search for an extra dimension in attack. AC Milan are said to be open to offers for the forward, with £20 million the reported asking price.
So can Wenger be the one to finally tame Balotelli? Would a move to Arsenal unlock the Italian’s full potential? And would the Gunners find the striker they’ve lacked since the sale of Robin Van Persie two years ago?
Indeed, it is true that Arsenal need a striker. Olivier Giroud has certainly improved over the past 12 months or so, adapting his game the Gunners’ style, but Wenger needs more attacking power if he is to mount a title challenge next season.
But even if Balotelli enjoys a successful World Cup with Italy, Arsenal should steer clear of football’s most erratic and infuriating player.
Roberto Mancini used to insist that if Balotelli were to straighten out his mind, he could be as good as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Such a statement seems foolish when you consider Balotelli ended his spell at Man City as the club’s fourth-choice striker, but it gives you a sense of his unfulfilled potential.
Every club Balotelli has played for has eventually looked to offload the troublesome striker. What makes Wenger think that it would be any different at Arsenal?
The people of Manchester used to report sightings of Balotelli like Sherpas would report Yeti sightings in the Himalayas. Spotting his camouflage Bentley patrolling the streets around the Arndale Centre was like catching a glimpse of the Batmobile in Gotham City.
Balotelli is entertaining like Boris Johnson is comical: The odd tale of his delusion can be tolerated from a distance—but come any closer, and he soon starts to lose his novelty.
Ever since bursting onto the scene under Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan, Balotelli has been headline news. When he got his hair cut into a new style earlier this year, his face—or rather his ‘do—made the front pages of the country’s papers.
But what should be most concerning for Wenger is the rarity with which he has made the back pages in recent years.
In his final season at City, Balotelli mustered just one Premier League goal. And while his tally of 14 goals in 30 Serie A games this year represents a decent return, he’s hardly set Italian football alight since returning 18 months ago.
There is not another football player who is as maddening as Balotelli. His ability to astound even the most hardened football fan isn’t in any doubt. But such glimpses of brilliance are now fewer and further apart.
From a tactical perspective, Balotelli would actually fit Arsenal well. With Italy, the 23-year-old tends to thrive as a lone striker flanked by diminutive playmakers and wingers. That’s the environment he would find at Arsenal.
As the focal point of Prandelli’s frontline, Balotelli may well enjoy a productive World Cup. Italy is reliant on him finding top form in front of goal—as he did at the 2012 European Championships.
But Wenger shouldn’t neglect what others have already found out about the Italian time and time again. Arsenal need a striker, but they should stay clear of Balotelli. He isn’t their man.