16 March 2008

Ryan Babel adjusting to Liverpool's demands

By Alan Smith

From Marco van Basten to Henk ten Cate through to Rafael Benitez, Ryan Babel hasn't exactly been short of advice over the years.
That's not forgetting his father, whose critical eye has hardly wavered since the striker's early days at the Ajax academy.
"Yes, he is very hard on me," Babel confirms. "He raised me to look at the things you are doing wrong, not doing right. If you do 10 things and eight of them are good, he taught me to only look at the two bad things to see how to improve.
"When I call him after games and ask him what he thinks, he will only talk about my faults. That can sometimes be annoying to hear, of course, but if it makes me a better player then it is OK."
Slowly but surely, the 21-year-old Dutchman is indeed improving as an increasingly important member of Benitez's Liverpool side, gradually getting to grips with the extra workload involved with his £11.5 million move from Ajax last summer.
As proof, Babel recently completed his first full 90 minutes in the Premier League, though that probably says as much about his manager's penchant for substitutions as it does for the stamina of this free-running forward.
Nevertheless, Babel can feel himself getting stronger as the season wears on.
"In Holland you only have to play to your maximum level in four games," he says. "With Ajax, you can play to 70 per cent and still win against the others. I've found here, though, that every game is massive. Even against the bottom teams you have to be at your best to win.
"I'm not worried that I haven't settled in completely yet. It's just a matter of time." Part of the reason, in fairness, is the difference in systems between here and at home.
Having been reared on Holland's classic 4-3-3, he has found several differences when asked to play wide in a 4-4-2.
"I didn't have to drop as far back at Ajax. Here, you have more responsibilities to defend." You can almost hear his cautious boss drumming home this same message, demanding his player funnel back when Liverpool lose possession.
"Because he knows we have the quality up front to create chances, I think he wants the defence to be perfect," Babel says of the Spaniard. "He knows what he wants from players and I know what he wants from me. He confirms that all the time. He makes sure that I know my job."
Mind you, the situation wasn't too dissimilar at Ajax where the manager, Ten Cate, now Avram Grant's bullish assistant at Chelsea, took the young prospect under his wing.
"He was also very important for my career. He gave me a lot of trust. He would speak with me all the time, almost like a father. Maybe it was because we have the same roots [Surinamese]. He could be very hard on me as well because he knew what I could do, and when I didn't produce that, his emotions would run high." Babel was raised in De Bijlmer, a huge housing project in Amsterdam, a high-rise estate with a tough reputation populated by many of Surinamese descent.
"I think 'ghetto' is the wrong word for it but it wasn't a very good neighbourhood in the Nineties," he says. "There was a lot of crime.
"All of Holland knew what it was like. If you told someone you were from De Bijlmer, they would look wary straight away." Inevitably, many of the local kids got mixed up in petty crime. Babel didn't dare with such strict parents at home. Anyway, it wasn't long before his special talent gained recognition.
Having progressed through the Ajax ranks, he started benefiting from the guidance of the great Van Basten, reserve team coach at the time but now in charge of the national team.
"He taught me a lot of things - the smart little things that a striker should know." Anfield, however, has only seen the evidence in patches, since Babel hasn't played very often in his preferred central position.
Still, we haven't finished yet. There's a lot more to come, notably a mouth-watering Champions League quarter-final against Arsenal next month.
But when we spoke this week before the draw, Babel was hoping to avoid an English side.
"The Premier League is probably the best," Babel explained. "Maybe not as good technically as Spain but the rhythm, the tempo is higher. When we bring that higher tempo to a game against European opponents, they can't deal with it. You could see that with Inter Milan. At Anfield, they were shocked by the pace.
"I have looked at how Liverpool have played in the Champions League over the last few years. If you look at the Barcelona game last season, we stayed compact to stop them from playing and they couldn't change their style to hitting longer balls like English teams can.
"I remember [Lionel] Messi had the ball but he couldn't do anything, he couldn't dribble because we were so compact. That's why we are better against the foreign sides." Time will tell, then, whether Liverpool can adjust. Two recent Champions League semi-final wins over Chelsea suggest they certainly can.
As for Babel, more is surely to come. The player Van Basten once proclaimed could emulate Thierry Henry is waiting for his Liverpool career to truly take off.
"In the beginning at Ajax I was confused because I was listening to other people too much - to the crowd, to fans' websites. Ah, they want me to do this, or that.' It drives you crazy in the end.
"I have learned to deal with that now. I know my strengths, I know myself and I know I have the potential with the right people around me."
You never know. If all goes well, his dad might even start remarking on the good points.
Player Data
Season 2007/08 (up to 16th March 2008)
Appearances 24
Starts 9
Minutes On Pitch 999
Goals 4
Mins per goal 250
Shots On Target 10
Shots Off Target 15
Shooting Accuracy 40
per cent Chance Conversion 16
per cent Goal Assists 2
Total Passes 386
Pass Completion 80
per cent Total Crosses 36
Cross Completion 22 per cent
Offside 4
Yellow Cards 1
Red Cards 0

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