29 March 2010

The Metamorphosis of Ryan Babel

I’m sorry, Ryan Babel.

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.


Marlon said...

I'd say the defensive improvement down the flank is down to the opposing right flank being threatened by Babel's pace and ability to get in behind them. While Maxi and Benayoun are more skillful and even more defensively sound than Babel their lack of pace allows Insua to get dive bombed.

nate said...

That doesn't account for games like Spurs in August, or last season – off the top of my head 0-2 Boro or 1-0 Pompey – where Babel started and disappointed, not tracking back at all.

His pace helps for sure, but it's his decision-making and overall awareness that have supported Insua and led to his sustained run in the side.

Hectorious said...

re: Spurs game. Is there any place online to watch that entire game for free? I recall being disappointed that Babel was hardly involved in the game but as I remember it, a little ways into the game (after the Skrtel-Carragher crash) Babel was playing very cautious to help out Insua with covering Aaron Lennon.

It reminded me of a basketball zone defense where you're cheating a bit off your assignment to rush in and double-team the star player. I would think the assignment is to have Insua stay in front and have Babel trailing so as to force Lennon down the sidelines and cross the ball, which prior to the collision should have been handled well by Carragher and Skrtel (Defoe and Keane aren't giants).

Ed said...



Nothing streaming, and not even sure if those links work, but it's got full match and extended highlights. About the best site I've been able to find when I need to catch up on a match (and can't afford the eseason anymore).

nate said...

Hectorius: Email me. ohyoubeauty at gmail.com. There are a few good video forums around, most of which you have to register for and none of which I feel comfortable linking on this site (I'm sure I probably can, but for some reason, I don't like publicizing them. They seem to stay around longer that way). I found Mediafire/Rapidshare links for the full match on one. I'm not 100% sure these links work, but they look like they do.

To be honest, I don't really feel like re-watching this match. And while I could be wrong, I think I know enough from my memories and those two graphics. And I remember being furious at Babel after the Spurs game, but I don't keep using that match to single him out. Almost everyone was poor that day, the aforementioned 18th-minute collision messed up the defense, and Liverpool still should have taken a point had Dowd rightfully pointed to the spot in the last five minutes. I use that Spurs game as a point of reference because it's one of Babel's few (three) league starts before 2/21, and basically the only one applicable. He was injured against City in November and Liverpool played 3-4-3 in the 0-1 loss at Sunderland.

You may be right about Babel cheating back after the collision, but I honestly don't remember it and neither ESPN's heat map nor Guardian's Chalkboard suggests it.

drew said...

Incidentally, how many points have we lost to penalty decisions this year?

We've only had two all season, and we've certainly had our share of bad decisions going against us as well.

vinnie said...

i haven't got a lot of chances to watch games this season due to work commitment but i remember every time i watch babel play (without torres partnering him, he's like a lost duck on the field. that's the way i see him: he's a very talented and fast player but his game knowledge has let him down again and again. Seems like he's doing well with torres in recent matches

Earl said...

I am a Babel fan and was frustrated with Rafa for not playing him more. Maybe the lack of playing time made a difference in his attitude, because the kid has definitely become more of a complete player. Don't like his methods, but I can't argue with the results.