£11.5m for the new Thierry Henry? It sounded like a deal and a half in July 2007. Ryan Babel, Ajax’s young winger and prodigous talent, would be making a big money move across the North Sea to Liverpool, where he would seemingly go on to prove himself as one of the best young players in the world and propel Liverpool on towards League and Champions League glory…
…Or so the script went ideally.
The reality was very different.
As a youngster Babel was always outstanding amongst his peers. Coming through the much vaunted Ajax youth system, he made his first team debut just a month after his 17th birthday. In his time with Ajax, his talent was undeniable. Marco Van Basten, then manager of the Dutch National team, quickly added Babel to his squad and gave him his debut as an 18 year old. However even for Ajax, Babel’s form was inconsistent at times and he would often spend periods on the bench or out of the team. As a youngster, this is of course, to be expected and it was thought, given his excellent performances as captain for Holland U21 in the 2007 European Championships, that he would go on to mature as a player, become more consistent in his performances at a higher level and from then on thrive at Anfield.
His first season saw Babel show flashes of brilliance at times but once again his consistency was a tad lacking. Many experts put this down to Babel just getting used to life in England and the pace of the English game. Many pundits felt that his second season would be much improved. Andy Gray notably selected Babel as being a player to watch in season 2008-2009 as he had the ability to develop his game and his talents into becoming a real force in the Premier League throughout the season.
Despite Liverpool’s improved season in 2008-2009, Babel was often only used from the substitutes bench and his performances never seemed to warrant, in the eye of manager Rafa Benitez at least, a consistent run in the team. While some games Babel would come on and turn the game in Liverpool’s favour, such as when he scored the winner against Manchester United at Anfield, or set up Fernando Torres for the winner at West Ham, he would often look out of sorts and fans were critical of his seeming lack of effort, poor touch and seeming unwillingness to match the workrate and endeavours of his team mates.
In his third season in England, the lack of opportunities at Anfield began to irk Babel. A loan move back to Ajax was mooted earlier in the season, with the player apparently suggesting that he’d be keen on a move. His relationship with Benitez and the fact that he seldom played from the start and was being used less and less frequently as a substitute saw him make his discontent at the club public in a Dutch magazine article, much to the ire of Benitez. The relationship reached breaking point around Christmas 2009 when Babel twittered his displeasure at being left out of the matchday squad for the trip to Stoke. Since then Babel has cut an isolated figure at Anfield and a move from the club during the transfer window seems certain, with talk of potential deals with Birmingham, Sunderland, Galatasaray and Arsenal almost daily in the press.
I have some sympathy with Babel, who seems to be a player who needs a run of games and perhaps some kind words from the manager, to restore his confidence and find his best form. For whatever reason, Rafa Benitez has chosen not to give Babel that chance, certainly over the past two years. Babel’s attitude hasn’t helped his situation and his seeming lack of application in games, similar to accusations levelled at Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov, haven’t endeared him to the Liverpool faithful.
This is a great shame, because Babel does have the potential to be a great player. He’s lacked the opportunities to prove that and the application to earn the right to those very opportunities.
Babel will bounce back, but it will be at another club. Babel’s move was destined to failure because Benitez and he never saw eye to eye on the key issues between them. In such circumstances, there is usually only ever one winner.
That’s why Benitez is staying and Babel will be going.
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