I took a bit of steam out of this post in the comments of yesterday’s match review, but it’s a point worth reiterating. Not because it’s yet another example of how wrong I can be, but because the difference Babel’s made of late has been a near revelation. At the very least, he’s shedding the ‘do not open until the 70th minute’ label and impressing in starts.
I’ll begin by quoting what I wrote yesterday, a succinct summation of the subsequent 1000 words:
I need to apologize to Ryan Babel, who deserves a lot of credit for recent games. But I don't take back what I wrote pre-January.
The difference is in Babel's game, and I'm hopeful (and believe) that it's down to his discussions with Benitez during the transfer window.
Babel's been Babel in attack, if more consistent when starting. But the key - the reason he's been playing games - is that he's learned how to track back. It was even evident today. Sunderland offered next to nothing, but Babel always got back to defend, even taking up positions behind Insua when Sunderland's fullbacks rarely overlapped.
I cannot overemphasize how important that is. Important to Liverpool, and important to Babel's career.
I'm not much for turning points, especially this season, but this seemingly has been one. And maybe it'll help dispel the illusion of Rafa's poor man-management.
Babel’s started in six of the last nine games: 3-0 Sunderland, 3-0 Lille, 4-1 Pompey, 0-1 Lille, 3-1 Unirea, and 0-0 City, with City on 2/21 his first start since facing (and being injured against) the same side in November. A result is rarely down to one player, but four wins, a draw, and a loss certainly isn’t a bad record, with goals against Pompey and Unirea and an assist against Lille.
But as said above, more impressive has been the overall performance put in. Thanks to the wonders of technology, I’ve a couple of graphics that illustrate this point. Both compare yesterday’s match to the first of the season, a 1-2 loss at Spurs, where Babel surprisingly started (one of his three league starts prior to this recent run).
First, the Guardian’s Chalkboard, which show the passes Babel attempted in each game, demonstrating the positions he took up, what he looked to accomplish, and how successful he was.
The second is his Soccernet “heat map” for each match – Sunderland on the top and Spurs below. Yes, Babel had 25 more minutes in yesterday’s match, substituted in the 68th against Spurs, but look at how he utilizes more of the flank against Sunderland, including in his own half, despite Liverpool’s relative comfort.
For all the praise, Babel wasn’t the ne plus ultra yesterday, and probably was the third or fourth best player in the team at most. For all his good work, the final ball – whether it was a shot or cross – was often lacking, partly evidenced in the above Chalkboard. It’s a complaint that’s cropped up before. But it should be easier to add to his game than defense awareness; it's something that will come with playing time. And with Liverpool likely to keep it tight in Portugal this Thursday, I’m interested to see if Babel retains his place. It’ll help demonstrate if he’s truly back in plans or if I’m imagining things.
It’s a small sample size, but Insua’s also been better with Babel in front of him than Benayoun or Maxi this season (he and Riera linked up well early on, but we all know what happened to Albert). In the same vein as this post last year, Liverpool’s record is 3W-1D-6L with Benayoun/Insua, 1-1-2 with Maxi/Insua, 6-3-1 with Riera/Insua, and 4-1-3 with Babel/Insua. And two of those Babel/Insua losses came back in the fall, the aforementioned Spurs match and Arsenal in the Carling Cup. As of late, Babel’s “protected” Insua far, far better than Benayoun or Maxi.
Since Babel’s “reclaimed” a starting spot on the left, none of the goals conceded have started down that flank. Hazard scored a tremendous free kick from Liverpool’s right. Belhadj’s cross for Pompey’s consolation came from that side as well. Unirea’s lone goal was from a corner, and while it was a header over a static Insua, the move didn’t come down that wing.
Another boon has been how well Torres and Babel have linked up, although Torres can make anyone look good with the form he’s in. Both players like to cut in from the left onto their right (evidenced by Torres’ superlative first goal on Sunday, and watch Babel’s run on the replay), making it dangerous when the two play together, dragging defenders into uncomfortable positions and generally creating confusion. That’s a big weapon to have in the armory, and it’s one that wouldn’t work to the same effect if Babel played in his “preferred position” paired with Torres up top. Which necessitated him showing enough defensive aptitude and work ethic for Benitez to trust him with a midfield berth.
Yes, Babel’s chances were few and far between over the past year or so; inadvisable quotes in the media, a month-long injury, and a few frustrating and anonymous appearances somewhat led to that, which led me to believe the player was on his way out. There had to be a reason Benitez wasn’t using him – and it’s not a personal grudge – which is why I’ve focused on what he’s apparently added to his game.
I still think that Liverpool could do with improvement on the flanks. I’ve been beating that drum for well over a year now and a few good matches from Babel aren’t going to completely change that. But I’ve become far more convinced that he has a future at the club, through his own hard work once given the chance.
Well done. Keep it up.