Babel: a Moneyball departure…?

There has been a lot of analysis and speculation as to which kind of players Liverpool will now attempt to sign as they come to the end of the first transfer window under the ownership of the Fenway Sports Group.  Luis Suarez and Charlie Adam seem to be prime candidates, although both Ajax and Blackpool are testing the resolve and the willingness to spend of the new owners and negotiation skills of Damien Comolli (which seems to involve umming and ahhing and not making much sense…).  However the first major player to leave Liverpool in this transfer window may yield more clues to their strategy.

The news came through today that Ryan Babel’s on-again, off-again move to the Bundesliga and TSG 1899 Hoffenheim has been finalised.  After 12 goals in 91 appearances (many of them coming from the substitute bench) the waiting game that Anfield was playing came to an end.  The waiting was for Ryan Babel’s talent and potential to resolve itself into concrete results.  Rafa Benitez had taken an £11.5m gamble that the youth player that lit up the Netherlands team in the UEFA under-21 Championship in 2007 was indeed going to become the “next Thierry Henry“.  Babel made his debut for the Dutch full national side two years earlier when he replaced Arjen Robben against Romania, he scored that day and in the process became the fourth-youngest player ever to score for the Netherlands.  There were plenty of suitors for Babel, with Newcastle and Portsmouth both interested but he seemed destined for Arsenal.  Thus it was something of a surprise when he signed for Liverpool, it looked like they had stolen him from under the nose of Arsene Wenger and his european web of cherry-picking scouts.

There were brief flashes of his talent, his winner against Manchester United in September 2008 and an audacious back-heel flick against Besiktas in November 2007 particularly stand out.  However good he could be on occasion Babel’s inconsistency at Liverpool became the main theme.  Three managers struggled to find a place for him in the starting eleven, his opportunities became restricted to a few minutes at the end of games.  The current caretaker manager, Kenny Dalglish, only played him for 30 minutes against Manchester United.  That was to be his last performance for Liverpool.

So what went wrong?  How did all the potential fail to shine through at Liverpool?  It is somehow appropriate that Babel is the first of the major departures of the Moneyball era at Liverpool.  He seems to typify exactly the type of scouting decision that Billy Beane and the sabermetricians are trying to move away from in Michael Lewis’ book.  He looks like a footballer, he is tall, quick and strong with a powerful shot.  However for the baseball statisticians a young player is not what he looks like but what he has done.  At Liverpool he has 91 Premier League appearances and 12 goals (a goal every 7.5 games).  Of course this doesn’t tell the whole story, as mentioned earlier he only played for a few minutes of most games.  When he did start he was often easily controlled by the opposition defences and he rarely finished games.  Of his total of 146 appearances for the club in all competitions he started only 65 times and was substituted in 40 of those games (thanks to for the stat).  He would often begin games brightly but then drift out of the match as if it all had become too difficult for him.  The point being that Babel is inconsistent and 3 Liverpool managers discovered that they couldn’t rely on him.  Regardless of how much he looks like a footballer, it was time to move on.

I sincerely hope he finds the time and the right environment necessary for him to develop fully as a player.  The right move for him may have been back to Ajax, indeed that seemed to have been his preference.  But instead the small town of Hoffenheim will be his new home for the next 2.5 years.  Good luck Ryan.

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