Why AC Milan Were Wrong to Rekindle Their Relationship with Mario Balotelli

In Italy, there is a saying that cautions against an effort to repeat a past experience. Minestra riscaldata, or reheated soup, suggests the second time around is never as good as the first. AC Milan’s Mario Balotelli is experiencing the pertinence of this expression.

The 25-year-old rejoined the Rossoneri on loan last summer after a fruitless year spent with Liverpool in the Premier League, but he has been unable to repeat the form of his first spell with the Italian giants.
Why AC Milan Were Wrong to Rekindle Their Relationship with Mario Balotelli
Why AC Milan Were Wrong to Rekindle Their Relationship with Mario Balotelli
Between 2013 and 2014, Balotelli scored 26 goals in 43 league appearances for the club before departing for a second spell in English football. However, during his second time around at Milan, he has so far found the net a meagre three times in 16 outings.

It all began in a relatively positive manner. He rejoined the club not long after Sinisa Mihajlovic, whom he worked with at Inter Milan earlier in his career, had been appointed head coach. And his new manager was initially impressed by the striker’s attitude.

“I knew Balotelli when he was 17, and I’m back with him at 25, I don’t know how he behaved in the meantime,” Mihajlovic told reporters prior to Milan’s win over Udinese in September. “Now he’s behaving in an exemplary way. I always try to encourage him to train at his best.”

The mercurial attacker’s discipline has been a consistent target for scrutiny throughout his career, but he agreed to a code of conduct upon his return to Milanello, per Corriere della Sera (h/t Football Italia), and he set about proving he still had plenty to offer.

And in his first start this season, Balotelli scored a wonderful free-kick on his way to picking up WhoScored.com’s man-of-the-match award in the aforementioned victory in Udine. Unfortunately, his promising beginning was soon halted by injury.

He made just one more start, in the 1-0 defeat away to Genoa in late September, before a prolonged period on the sidelines stultified any momentum he had gained. His next game in a Milan shirt would come on January 17 against Fiorentina.

Since his return to fitness and first-team action, however, Balotelli hasn’t been able to demonstrate the same quality of performance that he produced, albeit fleetingly, earlier in the campaign.

He has been restricted to substitute appearances with Mihajlovic suggesting that, even if the striker is no longer physically below par, he remains out of touch mentally.

The coach was fuming with Balotelli’s two-minute cameo in Milan’s win over Genoa in February, having to be restrained from publicly making an example of his own player by fitness coach Antonio Bovenzi at full time.

After the match, Mihajlovic told Mediaset Premium (h/t Goal):
We should've scored a third goal and not risked at the end. It is also my fault, as those who don't sacrifice themselves for the team to the 94th minute will no longer set foot on the field.
It wasn't just Balotelli, there were another two or three as well as him, they know who I'm talking about.
Mihajlovic would renege quickly as a result of M'Baye Niang's season-ending injury, though his words acted as a stark warning.

However, such focus on Balotelli's discipline is becoming tired to the point that it may be missing the real issue. He does care for the club; he admitted his affection for the Rossoneri in 2009 while playing for city rivals Inter, per Il Giornale (h/t Goal). But while he is passionate about the cause, his suitability is questionable.

An exceptional dribbler with the confidence to try the outrageous, he is arguably the finest natural attacking talent at Milan, but he has always been an individual. Fitting him into a cohesive collective has been a constant challenge, and this issue has only been compounded by the pragmatic, functional approach underpinning Mihajlovic’s team.
Balotelli is still capable of moments of skill, as he showed against Udinese earlier in the season.
Balotelli is still capable of moments of skill, as he showed against Udinese earlier in the season.
Within the side, all players are expected to contribute defensively in the form of pressuring the opposition and maintaining good positioning, both of which Balotelli appears at best uncomfortable with and at worst entirely averse to.

Consequently, while he is capable of producing moments of genius in the final third, he can occasionally undermine the team’s shape without possession. The whimsical attacking magician is running out of time to prove himself a good fit for Mihajlovic’s tactical preferences.

Milan brought Balotelli back with the objective of rekindling his career and regaining a world-class striker in the process. It was a gamble worth taking, but with just eight league games and a cup final left to play, it looks increasingly unlikely that it will pay off.

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