When I first saw Ryan Babel play for Liverpool, I thought, here is a massive signing. During his brief, subbed-on debut against Aston Villa, abundant pace and skill seemed bundled up in his feet, ready to burst forth once the kid found his Premier League legs. Dutch players are known for adapting to the EPL quickly. See: van Nistelrooy. See: van Persie. Ryan Babel would soon impact Liverpool’s attacking play: I felt certain.
While we were all examining pricey wunderkind Fernando Torres closely, wondering if the Spaniard would live up to the hype and the price tag (in retrospect, 20mil seems like a bargain, doesn’t it?), Ryan Babel floated into Anfield from Ajax comparatively under the radar for 11.5m. Supporters had hopes for the kid to be sure. But the expectations were not the same as those we laid upon Torres. And while Torres was enthralling supporters and breaking opposition hearts with his 33 goals, Babel was quietly trying to display his mettle whenever Rafa Benitez fielded him.
I saw Babel as another Luis Garcia, one of my favorite players when I first began following the Reds. I felt long term injury kept Garcia from realizing his full potential for Liverpool. Though I cannot complain about the deal that sent the Spanish winger to Atletico Madrid since the same deal brought Torres to Anfield, I had really hoped to see Garcia given another chance to return to first team play and show what he could do as a settled player with Premier League experience.
For me Ryan Babel was a second chance at what Luis Garcia could no longer offer. Babel would need time to settle into the league and grow as a player. Like Garcia, Babel was a winger-striker. Living in flux between two roles. Delightfully elusive. An attacking player with flair and inventiveness. Unafraid to take that crazy shot on goal while also able to carve out danger down the flank and create that deadly chance for a teammate. I could see all this in Ryan Babel. He just needed time.
My excitement seemed to be ratified by his insane goal against Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League semifinals. While Chelsea would knock Liverpool out of the competition, Babel’s goal was part of an extra-time Red surge that almost brought victory back within Liverpool’s reach. From 35 yards out, Babel fired an absolute rocket. Peter Cech was caught off guard and off balance. While Cech managed to get a hand to it, the Dutchman’s ball was much too much to handle and the big keeper could only push it into the far side of the net. Goal. Babel brought Liverpool within sight of victory. The Reds wouldn’t make it to the final, but for supporters, the wondergoal was a signal: all the promise Ryan Babel had hinted at with his speed and footwork throughout his first season, might just blossom into something truly special in 2008/2009.
Enter Albert Riera.
Liverpool’s 2008 transfer window may have seemed innocuous and understated following the Summer of Torres, but one attacking purchase turned out to be a serious step forward. For a reported 8m, Albert Riera joined Liverpool’s ranks. Liverpool had been longing for a quality out-and-out leftside winger for ages. Harry Kewell’s injury woes prevented him from reaching the potential he had shown with Leeds. Bolo Zenden rarely influenced the match with Liverpool the way he did with Middlesbrough and, later, Marseille. Riera was proving himself on the wing almost immediately.
Riera quickly carved out a deserved spot in Rafa Benitez’s starting XI. Full of guile and vision, the Spaniard left countless defenders behind and launched the ball into all the dangerous spaces. He even had an eye for goal himself. Between Riera’s remarkable start to the season and Dirk Kuyt‘s dogged consistency on the right, Ryan Babel was relegated to the bench. Babel became Rafa’s supersub. Coming on in the late minutes to try and use his pace to outwit tiring back lines. But he’s shown little growth since his first signs of potential in the fall of 2007. Competing for pitch has not helped his Anfield education.
Supersub could be a decent role for the pacy, goalminded Dutchman, but what the kid really needs is starts.
Babel should be far more mature than he is after almost two full years in England. He should have an eye for when to pass and when to penetrate. He still seems to get it wrong half the time. But when he gets it right, we can see what an exciting, dynamic player he can be.
Perhaps the best thing for Ryan Babel would be a go in the second striker role. With Robbie Keane gone, Babel may have a chance to establish a striking partnership with Torres. Given time they could forge an effective dynamic and playing just behind the prolific Torres would give Babel a chance to allow his best guises to cohabitate: goal-provider and goal-scorer.
The only problem with this is that Liverpool play their utmost best when Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard are all on the pitch together. This usually pushes Gerrard into an advanced midfield role with Torres as the sole striker.
Perhaps the key for Ryan is finding his place in Rafa’s system. If he has one, he’ll get the starts. If he gets the starts, he’ll can grow into the player we all know he can be.
If he remains patient with Liverpool, Babel’s youth will prove to be a great advantage. Benitez clearly rates him. Given time to mature, Ryan Babel could prove to be an invaluable asset in Liverpool’s quest for title number 19, which also happens to be the number he wears on his back. He may not be in the starting formula today, but he’s got a long footballing future ahead of him. If he stays at Anfield, he may make the number 19 part of Liverpool’s history in more ways than one.
At least one supporter hopes to see it. Time holds the answer.