Marco van Basten told us Ryan Babel might just be the next Thierry Henry. And there have been some instances to suggest the 22-year-old could be on the path to greatness:
Babel’s 40 yard blast against Chelsea to give Liverpool a breath of hope in last year’s Champions League semi-final.
His arched rocket past Edwin van Der Sar in September to give Liverpool their first win over Manchester United since 2004.
And his header on target followed by a sharp rebound to put Saturday’s match against West Ham out of reach.
At times Babel shows the dexterity, vision and clever movement that Henry radiated endlessly during the Frenchman’s tenure in England. But for Babel these moments come in limited quantity.
For every instance when he turns a defender and bursts into space, there are a dozen when he twists himself into a cul de sac and loses the ball. For every instance when he makes a wonderblast on target, there are countless times when his selfishness forces him to ignore a teammate who could be in on goal from the simplest of passes.
Watching him during his first season, I thought Babel would come into full being in a year or so. He was young. He was adapting to the EPL. It would take time. I could see from his first league appearance (when he was subbed on against Aston Villa in August 2007) he had loads of promise. There was speed and wiliness just waiting to burst forth and van Basten’s Henry comparison seemed viable.
This season, there were moments when Babel showed signs of maturing. He seemed more settled in the league and was passing more when previously he would have charged forward, hogging the ball.
But despite continued signs of promise, Babel has yet to show any signs of blooming into the next superstar. By his own admission, Babel cannot cling to the “well, he’s still young” excuse for much longer. He needs to show his true worth every chance he gets.
A bit part of the problem is Babel hasn’t had enough first team experience this season to enjoy a solid platform on which to grow. Rafa Benitez likes to use Babel primarily as a substitute. And while Babel’s fresh pace and energy make a great weapon to bring on against tiring defenses, giving the lad periodic 20 minute windows to try to score a goal is not the best recipe for his development.
Van Basten has made similar criticism and thinks Babel should have stayed in Holland longer rather than warming Liverpool’s bench.
But Babel could still have something to offer Liverpool. For the Reds to truly challenge for the title over the next few years, they’ll need to use the upcoming transfer windows to chase after the depth of Manchester United and Chelsea. Babel may be among the players sold to raise funds for incoming talent, but Liverpool would be wise to maintain a collection of versatile players. Men who can fill more than one role. Babel can play as a winger or as a striker, and though he won’t be a first choice Albert Riera or Fernando Torres, his utility in two areas helps Liverpool make the squad deeper. Two for the price of one.
And while Gerrard and Torres are unequivocally Liverpool’s top hitmen, if either of them go down with injury next season, Babel can come on as the first striker (as he did when Torres came off on Saturday) or in support.
Hitting the goal against the Hammers makes me wonder what his future will be. I would have thought he was on his way out. Now I’m not sure. The kid has a place. If he gets the chance to play regularly, he could still prove to be a good buy for the Reds. Babel needs to have patience with Rafa and Rafa needs to have confidence in Babel.
Did the coach bring him on in London to reveal his confidence in Babel? Or was it to show him off to potential buyers?