How Fabio Borini could boost Liverpool's Champions League charge next season
With Liverpool currently high on title-tinged optimism, it’s easy to forget that in the years since Fenway Sports Group’s 2010 takeover, the club’s transfer business has often threatened to be a potentially fatal flaw.
This season's overachievement has banished memories of last summer, but the failed pursuits of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Diego Costa both left a familiar whiff of amateurism. The scent only grew stronger when the saga was repeated six months later with Yevhen Konoplyanka. And while the money spent on Tiago Ilori, Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto may not have quite hit the levels of the Carroll-Downing-Adam splurge of 2011, even the most devoted disciples of the Moneyball manual would struggle to explain the wisdom behind a £21 million outlay that has so far reaped a solitary Premier League start.
Whether Fabio Borini will come to be counted alongside the above names remains to be seen. When the Italian was dispatched to smoggy Wearside in September, it was largely presumed to be in the hope of elevating a future asking price. But as the season has unfolded, Borini has become one of the few impressive figures in a tumultuous Sunderland campaign, and a future for him at Anfield no longer seems so fanciful. He may not be scoring as freely as his Liverpool counterparts, but his knack of getting big goals on big occasions has been remarkable.
A stunning winner when Newcastle visited in September and 88th-minute equaliser against Chelsea in the League Cup quarter-finals preceded one coolly dispatched penalty against Manchester United in the semi-finals and another in the Tyne-Wear derby, this time to breach the floodgates at St James’ Park. Borini’s beautifully taken opener in the League Cup final, stroked into the corner after he'd out-muscled Vincent Kompany, completes his impressive collection of big-game contributions so far.
That ability to rise to the occasion, especially in knockout competitions, could prove valuable to a Liverpool side competing on four fronts next term. On the other hand, though, there hasn’t been too much else – because the above goals, fine as they were, count for five of the six Borini has netted in his 31 Sunderland outings. The concern is not a new one: injury problems may have nagged his inaugural season at Anfield but there was always a lingering suspicion that, despite his obvious application, end product often proved elusive for the Italian. It’s a judgement to which a mere two goals in 20 appearances would seem to bare testimony.
There is, however, clear logic about a return. While Liverpool’s current crop of attackers have carried the can magnificently this term, resources at the sharp end are thinly spread. At least three of Daniel Sturridge, Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho are called upon each game – often all four – and with European football beckoning, Rodgers’ attack is clearly in line for a summer bolstering.
There’s a reason why elite clubs tend not to recruit from last season’s relegation fodder, though, and the reservations about Borini’s productivity are closely tied to those regarding his position – or lack of one. The forward’s mobility and intelligent movement may not be in doubt, but is he a penalty box predator or a space-creating second striker? The absence of a true eye for goal would seem to rule out the former, while a central role for a non-scoring striker is a luxury no top-level team can afford.
His career has often seen him deployed on the flanks, too, but has this been more down to what he doesn’t have (i.e. muscle mass or high-end technique) than what he does? Borini certainly boasts the versatility that’s been so notable throughout Liverpool’s attack this season, but whether that makes him a natural fit in Rodgers’ forward line is another matter.
Whether he’d be a sure-fire pick at Anfield is even more dubious. Consistent selection bequeaths consistent form, especially with strikers, and Borini has admitted regular football has been crucial to this season’s improved showings. "As a striker you need to score goals," he said after netting against Manchester United in January. "I’ve never had a long spell playing in England but now I’m getting a long run of games."
The major worry for Rodgers would be that the two major factors in Borini’s favour this season – frequent first-team football and his involvement in big games – would be far from guaranteed at Liverpool. With Suarez and Sturridge weaving their relentless magic, Borini’s role would surely be rather more peripheral. He isn't a player likely to boost creativity; Sterling has averaged roughly twice Borini’s number of key passes this season, Coutinho three times as many.
But different situations require different personnel, and as Liverpool’s current form continues to soar, so too does the promise of new scenarios next term. Rodgers must tailor his tactics to different occasions next season, so it’s reasonable to expect the Northern Irishman's gameplan rolodex will be added to once Champions League football has been secured.
Should this occur, Borini could prove key. The Italian could be useful in a more rigid blueprint, most obviously as a shuttling wide forward within a front three. Both Suarez and Sturridge have been deployed as nominal wide-men of late with limited success, and Borini’s tactical discipline would surely help a defence which has, unbelievably, conceded only one goal fewer than 17th-placed Crystal Palace this term.
Rodgers has denied implementing an excessively carefree approach this term. "It’s not how we work, to outscore opponents," he said after Saturday’s trip to Cardiff, though many would say the 6-3 scoreline provided glaring evidence to the contrary. But the real clue came in his next line: "We try to work on our balance." Balance is what Borini could bring. As rousing as the current policy has been, it’s unlikely to reap similar rewards against the Champions League’s more clued-up tacticians.
And so Borini, not deemed good enough for seventh-placed Liverpool last summer, may suddenly seem rather more useful if the club ends the campaign, as they surely will, in the top four.