Probably like a lot of us, when Lucas Leiva and Ryan Babel joined Liverpool I scanned websites of both Gremio and Ajax to see what the two sets of divested fans felt about losing their starlets to the Reds.
The Gremio site was marked by fatalism, pride and a certain amount of anguish. But whatever the individual response to losing Lucas it was plain to see that the young lad commanded the complete confidence of his former club’s supporters. In fact it was clear they loved him. There were comparisons there between Lucas and Falcao, Lucas and Cerezo, even Lucas and Gerrard. Here, apparently, was a player of the authentic southern Brazilian style – a box-to-box midfielder who played football with the high technique we expect of players from that part of the world and the sense of urgent purpose that sometimes seems lacking. People talked about his one touch play, his imaginative running off the ball, his tireless desire to close down the opposition. They talked about his combativeness and his quick thinking. And they talked about how irreplaceable he would be and how they would miss him. No Red could scan those pages without experiencing a surge of joy (and because we are football romantics here at Anfield a tinge of pity for the Gremio lads too). This was a 19-year-old
they were talking about! But probably most Reds reading those fantastic enconiums also felt a blast of disbelief that it was wind-swept Liverpool - not Real, not Barca, not Benfica, not Milan (sun-kissed, the lot of ‘em) - who were going to land the best young Brazilian to emerge since Kaka.
The Ajax site was different. Babel divided opinion in Amsterdam. For every fan who talked up his staggering pace on the ball, there was a tired Dutch shrug at his erratic decision-making. For every supporter who mentioned his hammer shot there was another who bemoaned his shot selection and complained of his naivety. Maybe the idea of raw
talent doesn’t impress in a country where even school footballers are expected to show something that’s been cooked. Or perhaps there’s simply more sour grapes at a prestigious club which is perennially and – for them - boringly stripped of its best young players. But even allowing for that there was a strata of genuine disbelief on the Ajax sites that Liverpool had thrown such a lot of money at such a misfiring talent.
I liked both Lucas and Babel as soon as I saw them. I also liked the idea
of them because both acquisitions seemed to signal that Rafa was thinking beyond the functional to the decorative. I don’t mean that in a bad sense. But compared to what we had at Anfield, and certainly to what we’d been used to under Houllier, both Lucas and Babel promised excitement and adventure and a readiness to take a huge punt on precocious talent. They indicated very strongly that we hoped soon to meet the best teams in Europe on level terms when it came to flair and technique. I still think that the two signings carried a colossal symbolic value which was every bit as important as the signing of Torres – and something which probably wouldn’t have happened were it not for Istanbul.
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Eighteen months on, what are we to think? Well here’s a cautionary note. To ask that question even three weeks ago would have been to provoke an avalanche of derision at one of the young players. Lucas Leiva, we were told, was not Liverpool quality. He couldn’t pass, couldn’t tackle, couldn’t run and probably couldn’t piss without asking his mum first. He was a fraud, a waste of money, the worst Brazilian footballer of all time and he was, in fact, keeping far superior local talent out of the team. Against Fulham he was booed by the know-nothings and then his house was burgled. Jesus, you had to feel for him even if you didn’t rate him as a footballer. You also had to feel embarrassed that Anfield, which Lucas had honoured in several interviews to foreign journalists, had paraded such a public thumbs down to a solitary young player when no one in a Red shirt that day, not even the experienced players, seemed capable of lifting their game.
Whoever had a private word with him at that point and said “please stick it out lad, you’re a great player, this is a great town, things will get better” deserves the Shankly Cross or whatever honorific we give to these local heroes. If that conversation took place it might end up ranking as one of the great turning points in Liverpool’s modern history. It’s possible of course that no one said anything out of the ordinary to Lucas. He might have just knuckled down, drawn on his own resolve and decided to come up fighting. Some young footballers have huge reserves of inner belief and ambition. That’s why they are where they are. This must be especially true of Lucas who showed the balls of a young Liverpool merchant seaman setting out on his maiden voyage by uprooting himself from home to come to a country where he understood no one and no one understood him.
So what does he bring to the eleven? It’s obvious now of course. But there were clues from the first time he appeared in the Red. Lucas brings the traditional Liverpool qualities of pass and move to a team that is slowly re-learning something that used to be its birthright. Lucas knows that the best pass in football is usually the five yard pass, followed instantly by a move into space. Occasionally it’s necessary to throw something longer into the game, and Lucas can do this too, but his regulation pass is a five to ten-yard stab into the opposition’s ribcage. A couple of those in quick succession and it begins to fucking hurt. A couple more and the other lot are struggling for breath and space is opening up in nasty areas all over the pitch. And that’s what Lucas does. He asphyxiates them and fills us with thunderous air. I’m not a spiritual bloke but in these past few games I swear it’s been possible to squint at the field and see the ghost of young Ronnie Whelan on the lad’s shoulder.
I also believe he was making these rapier passes and these ingenious runs from his very first game. For sure he sometimes appeared to lack the physique (or technique) to hold off physical challenges and make his neat collection of the ball really count. Probably no one in Brazil had ploughed into his shoulder with as much industrial force (and with the ref’s permission) as Michael Essien continually did at Stamford Bridge. But part of the problem was that no teammate was reading him, or they didn’t have true confidence in him, and much of his good running was being squandered. The story’s different now. There’s a swelling in both Lucas’s confidence and the esteem in which he’s clearly now regarded by Gerrard and the others. Players are starting to look for Lucas. And he really wants the ball. I hope, I pray, that he doesn’t become cloistered when he next treads the turf at Anfield. It would be a great thing if he could feel the Kop’s new confidence in him right from the start.
But, jeez, did you see the way he was using his chest against Arsenal to control and take command of loose balls in crowded areas? Magnifico, no? Three or four times he did this and it was sublime. He looked lightning quick to seize on these loose balls but this was probably a trick of the eye because to Lucas the balls weren’t there to be contested at all. In other words they weren’t ‘loose’. He’d anticipated the evolution of play perfectly, even when that evolution was full of accidents. This is top class football. It’s like Xabi Alonso – the same accelerated brain pattern, the same enhanced ability to compute movement, the same intuition that defies rational analysis. The result was gorgeous. The normal player would have been involved in a series of 50-50 tackles to grab hold of the ball. Lucas was half a second quicker and already emerging from the pack with the ball falling off his chest into the empty space he was running into. Yes, that’s football.
I’d play Lucas with Alonso, Mascherano and Gerrard. All four of them in the same team – especially against the bus-parkers when it makes as much sense to go through them as around them. That quartet would mean ownership of the pitch as well as sufficient dynamism to capitalise on that ownership. It would help us turn the little pockets of space that exist between the lines of densely packed opponents into relative chasms. Remember Valencia?
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What about Ryan Babel then? Were those Ajax supporters right when they qualified their praise for the young Dutchman?
Well so far he’s had a miserable season really, despite destroying Man United at Anfield and showing Olympique Marseilles (again) that wonderful combination of dainty feet and surging body strength. But the promise he showed at the back end of last season, when he was terrorising Arsenal and Chelsea, has not been translated into regular form or a regular slot. That’s been the biggest disappointment of our season to date. It has meant an extreme over-reliance on the far inferior, though arguably more dependable, qualities of Dirk Kuyt and has led to a crisis of confidence in Babel himself. Why, he must be asking himself, have I not got within sniffing distance of a regular slot in the team – especially with Torres unavailable for so long and especially with the boys shedding home points to such unfancied clubs as Stoke, Hull, Fulham and West Ham? It’s worth reminding ourselves that Babel started none of those matches (notching up a paltry 39 minutes as a sub across all 4 games) and that Kuyt started all of them - and finished all but one. Such is the lack of confidence that Rafa has in Babel.
Of course all was not rosy with Babel even when he was terrorising those Arsenal and Chelsea defences in last season’s Champions League matches. His greatest moment last season – possibly Liverpool’s greatest moment - was when he came on in the quarters at Anfield and tore the heart out of Arsenal. Power, pace, trickery, and intelligence allied in one individual will always propel a team a long way towards victory and Babel, momentarily, combined all those elements in that game – and again, when he came on at Stamford Bridge in the semis. And yet, the lad had been wretched at the Emirates in the first leg when he’d found himself in the starting line up and suddenly bereft of the ability to trap a ball - and not much better when he’d started in the Anfield leg against Chelsea.
Consequently a theory emerged last season that Babel was most effective coming into games as a sub when the opposition was tiring. The idea was that a sudden injection of a turbo-charged Babel was bound to be too much for a tiring opposition team that had been rope-a-doping for the best part of the game. I never believed that – and certainly don’t believe it this season when he’s been a relatively ineffective substitute. But I did think there was a bigger problem, which was psychological. At 0-0 in a virgin game Babel often seemed to be a bag of nerves, the first few touches hesitant at best, clumsy at worst. But as a sub coming on to a pitch in relative disarray (compared with the first minute of the game), often with a specific and ambitious objective (overturning an impending defeat) Babel looked primed and almost superciliously confident. It was as if once the rulebook was thrown away and there was no need for caution he was a liberated footballer. In other words he performed far better coming into a game that needed a dramatic solution rather than starting one where the emphasis was on not creating a self-inflicted problem.
This might explain why he has been relatively ineffective when he’s been used as a substitute against Stoke City, Fulham, West Ham, and Hull. In all of those games Liverpool had something to lose when he came on as well as something to win. Maybe it was only a measly point each time but it was possibly enough to intimidate Babel. And therefore what we got each time (which we didn’t get in the desperation of the Champions League) was the familiar Babel - a player who seems afraid to make mistakes.
But is it Babel who is intimidated? Or is it his coach? Is it a temperament problem he has or is he simply burdened with too many defensive instructions? Does he respond better to the request to “cut the full back to ribbons lad” or “whatever else you do, make sure their full back doesn’t get beyond you with the ball”? We can only speculate. But many people will remember one of his first interviews with the media after joining the Reds in which he said that after several weeks coaching Rafa had never once mentioned what he should do with the ball. Everything had been about how to defend. Babel wasn’t complaining. Indeed he said he was learning valuable things. But, still, there was a tinge of amazement – the same sort of amazement, perhaps, that Quaresma apparently expressed when he declined a move to Liverpool because he didn’t want to turn into an auxiliary defender.
Perhaps Babel will soon leave us. I'd be sad if he did because he would make a fine player somewhere else. He may even be a great one if he finds a coach willing to wager on his fragile genius and not be over-concerned about the natural lack of caution in his play. Ironically, his best chance of succeeding at Liverpool is if we find ourselves five or six points off the pace near the end of the season with absolutely nothing to be gained by cautious football. Chasing the leading pack you’d want Babel in the team. But, obviously I hope it doesn’t come to that. It’s a shame though because with the staggering amount of killing possession we are now getting thanks to Alonso we ought to be in a position to exploit Babel's gifts and make his incredible cameos against Arsenal, Chelsea and Man Utd a regular feature of our football.