Fewer Liverpool players encapsulate the maxim ‘what might have been’ better than Ryan Babel. The man from Amsterdam arrived at Rafa Benitez’s juggernaut in 2007 for £11.5 million, after earning rave reviews in Europe.
None other than Marko van Basten had made some, perhaps unhelpful, comparisons to Thierry Henry as Babel roared through the Eredivisie and into the Dutch National Team. Not bad for a player who’d only been in the Ajax first team for thirteen months.
Young and Raw
First impressions were good. He was a tad rash and erratic but at just twenty years of age that could’ve been expected. As Liverpool continued to progress after three excellent seasons under Rafa, the standards were exceptionally high at Liverpool, but Babel caught the eye in 2007/08 and never looked out of place.
He chipped in with ten goals in forty-nine, and it looked like we had signed a real talent who could make a lasting contribution. There were some excellent goals; particularly a tidy finish against Arsenal in the Champions League as well as lovely goals against Derby, Bolton, and Newcastle which hinted at real finishing prowess.
A few people winced at some horrendous final balls, and he did seem to shy away from the physical side of the game, but a lot of people were suitably satisfied with what they’d seen in his maiden campaign.
From there on in, things went south for Babel and Liverpool FC. A horrendous ankle ligament injury in 2008 saw him miss the Euros with the Netherlands and fall behind the likes of Kuyt, Riera, and Benayoun in the Liverpool pecking order. As his game time dipped, so too did his form. Babel had the ability for sure, but he started to become something of a luxury player.
After Liverpool went so close to winning the League in 2008/09, Babel fell away. Rafa’s 4-2-3-1 formation also made it hard for him to nail down a natural position. He wanted to play up front, but Benitez played him out wide, and there was only ever one winner in that debate. It was with that framework that Babel’s frustrations probably began to affect his mental approach.
His work rate dropped even further and he became a bit part member of the squad, even as things went badly wrong for the club in 2009/10. It was that miserable campaign that saw the general mood of the fans turn against the Dutchman. The club yearned for quality, and contribution and Babel offered neither when called on.
He would score just eight times across in his final two seasons as a Red before being shipped off to Hoffenheim in January 2011 for around £8 million. It was a rapid and sad decline for a player who’d promised so much.
His ambling career since leaving Anfield suggests a player who let his talent go to waste. Many have pointed to his perceived low commitment, cringe-worthy rap videos, and an alleged half-hearted attitude to his football career as the causes of his decline. Spells in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, the UAE, and Turkey would merit the argument that he was just another youngster who flopped at the highest level.
However, he has rolled up his sleeves in recent years and even won back his place in the Dutch national team. In a candid interview with AS in 2016, Babel was quite honest, and though his words may conjure little sympathy from some quarters, you have to remember that back then, he was a young lad, in a foreign country, trying to make his way in the game. Babel said,
“I was 20 when I arrived to the Premier League. When you are that age, people have to help you, talk to you. When I arrived, no one helped me. I was alone. It’s difficult for any young player. Not everyone is Messi or Ronaldo.”
His comments are a thinly-veiled nod to Benitez’s alleged frosty man management skills, and while it may not be to everyone’s taste, his words do at least shed some light on the winger’s perspective of his three and half years at Liverpool.
It really is a shame things didn’t pan out differently for Babel. He had everything to make it: blistering pace, skill, one hell of a shot, and an eye for the audacious. If only he’d had the right mentality, he could’ve, and probably should’ve, been a Kop hero.