Ryan Babel – The departure of Liverpool’s Dutch enigma
As Ryan Babel bids to resurrect his career in Germany, Kieran Beckles looks back at his time at Anfield
Ryan Babel called time on his Liverpool career on Tuesday and completed his move to Hoffenheim on a two-and-a-half year deal.
It ends a difficult four years at Anfield, where despite enjoying a number of high points, Babel leaves with a legacy very much unfulfilled.
Billed as one of Europe’s most exciting young prospects, the Dutch winger moved to Merseyside for £11.5m in 2007. As he arrived from Ajax, Babel drew a favourable comparison to Thierry Henry from AC Milan legend Marco van Basten, who claimed he had “all the potential” to emulate the Arsenal striker.
The former Ajax forward added: “The pace, movement, finishing, feel for the game, it’s all there, if he keeps developing and improving there is no saying what he might achieve in the game.”
His match-winning exploits at the European Under-21 championship in the summer of 2007 announced his talent to English audiences and at the time of his official unveiling at Liverpool the Ajax youth product had already earned 14 caps with his country’s senior team.
From the first moment Babel donned Liverpool’s colours the qualities described by van Basten were evident. Babel made his Premier League debut at Aston Villa when introduced as a second-half substitute by Rafael BenÃƒÂtez, and he immediately showcased his talents. Days later he was again a threat from the bench in Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Chelsea.
But Babel’s early days on Merseyside were to give an accurate forecast of the pattern of his eventual career at the club. He was used sparingly by BenÃƒÂtez in his first season in England and struggled to match the explosive impact that Fernando Torres -who also arrived in the summer of 2007 -had made.
For a time Babel rivalled Anfield cult hero David Fairclough’s status as Liverpool’s European Super Sub. His late strike against Marseille in the group stages ensured Liverpool’s progress into the next round, and that was followed by an important goal against Arsenal in the second-leg of the Champions League quarter-final at Anfield.
The following season saw Babel face stiff competition from Dirk Kuyt, Albert Reira and Yossi Benayoun for a place in BenÃƒÂtez’s first-choice eleven. The 24-year-old struggled to retain a regular starting spot and the rest of the time spent under the Spaniard’s management saw Babel used predominantly as a substitute, with the winger enjoying sporadic success in front of goal.
Liverpool rejected a £8m bid from Birmingham for the attacker last January as BenÃƒÂtez reiterated his desire to keep hold of the former Ajax star. But what may at the time have been construed as a statement of faith instead heralded a false dawn.
Babel will argue that BenÃƒÂtez failed to hand him regular opportunities, denying him the chance to develop and showcase his ability. But when the Dutch international was given rare chances to shine, he was too often guilty of being wasteful in possession and lacked the incisive cross or final ball.
After Babel scored a long-range strike in a 1-1 draw against Lyon in 2009, BBC pundit Alan Hansen called on the forward to be more consistent. “He’s got the pace, the strength and the feet to be a top, top player, but he needs to make use of those attributes on a more consistent basis,” he said.
But even BenÃƒÂtez’s successor Roy Hodgson only used Babel sparingly despite the club’s plight in front of goal as Torres struggled for form.
Babel produced a clinical finish to help Liverpool to a 3-0 victory over Aston Villa in his first Premier League start this season, but in the matches that followed Hodgson still preferred David N’Gog to partner Torres.
Now, as he bids to resurrect his career in Germany, Liverpool fans will look back on the Anfield career of a player brimming with potential but whose time on Merseyside was hampered by both a lack of opportunity, and a failure to savour the rare chances when they came.
Others may be more straightforward. Perhaps Liverpool and Ryan Babel were simply not a good fit.