Pundits and fans viewed Ajax’s signing of the former player Ryan Babel with great scepticism. During his first spell with the club, he had never really won over all Ajax fans and he has never fulfilled his potential since leaving in the first place. His departure to Liverpool as a youngster seemed to confirm the idea held by many fans that he was greedy, egotistical and not worthy of Ajax in the first place. But since his return in August, Babel has shown that the club is a big part of him and has given the Amsterdam giants everything he has in an attempt to get his career back on track.
The Amsterdam-born striker came through Ajax’s famous youth academy, De Toekomst, and was fast-tracked into the first-team under Ronald Koeman at just 17-years-old, making his debut for the Eredivisie giants in a 4-0 trouncing of ADO Den Haag. The teenager grabbed an assist in his first match in which he appeared alongside 21-year-old Maarten Stekelenburg as well as Nigel de Jong and Wesley Sneijder, who were just 19 at the time, whilst John Heitinga and Maxwell, now of PSG, also featured. Koeman’s squad, which also consisted of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Rafael van der Vaart, Steven Pienaar and Zdenek Grygera went on to lift the Eredivisie title. After an exciting start to his Ajax career, the club failed to retain their title but Babel would claim two more cups in the famous red and white, lifting the KNVB Beker and the Johan Cruijff Schaal (Dutch Super Cup) twice each before departing the club after three years in the first-team.
Although the future looked bright for Babel, the player has struggled to fulfil his potential since leaving the Amsterdam ArenA in 2007. He joined Liverpool for around £11million at just 20-years-old and his first year with the Anfield club was by far the most prosperous in personal terms. Babel made 15 first-team appearances in the Premier League and a further 15 coming off the bench. In that season, the Netherlands international featured in 14 Champions League games, scoring six goals as Rafael Benitez’s side reached the semi-finals of Europe’s most prestigious club competition. After his first campaign with the Reds, however, Babel’s game time began to drop, as did his confidence as he was included in Liverpool’s starting XI just six times in the English top flight, making 21 appearances as a substitute.
His decline accelerated and he was sold to Bundesliga side Hoffenheim for £8million in January 2011. The pair looked a good fit for each other and Babel would go on to score six goals in 51 competitive games for the Village Club. But the forward’s career seemed to have gone in a similar direction to that of his new side upon their return to the Bundesliga in 2008 – a bright start followed by great inconsistency and then a massive decline. As Babel fell out of favour at a struggling Hoffenheim, both sides decided it would be for the best if they parted ways and looked to get back on track to a successful future which had thus far evaded them, and so Babel’s contract was terminated.
Fiorentina were considered the top candidates to sign the 25-year-old but Ajax soon came knocking as they were desperate for a cheap signing to fill the void left up front by an injured Kolbeinn Sigthorsson. The appeal of a free, mature and experienced player who knows and understands the Ajax system proved irresistible and the Amsterdam side approached Babel with a one-year deal which he could not turn down and secured his return immediately.
Babel has made four appearances in the Eredivisie for his boyhood club this season and has already proved a key player for Frank de Boer’s men. He was by far Ajax’s best player in the 1-0 defeat to Borussia Dortmund in their Champions League opener. Throughout the clash with Jurgen Klopp’s men, Babel proved to be Ajax’s main threat as he fought hard to win the ball for his side and create danger for the German champions. Furthermore, he excelled in the 1-1 draw with Utrecht at the Amsterdam ArenA, opening the scoring after six minutes and creating several chances for his side, which, frustratingly for De Boer, none of which they could capitalise on.
In recent years, Ajax have struggled in the first half of the season and then improved after the turn of the year and there is little to suggest that this campaign is going to be any different. But Babel has been integral in the side maintaining their unbeaten start to the season. De Boer is currently playing with a very young side. Vurnon Anita, Jan Vertonghen and Gregory van der Wiel may have been the only big losses to the first-team, but the changes have been plenty and the experience within the squad is minimal.
Following the departure of the defenders, 23-year-old centre-back Toby Alderweireld has been left to lead a defensive line-up which consists of Ricardo van Rhijn, a centre-back enjoying his first full season in the first-team who has been shifted out to the right, new signing Niklas Moisander and Daley Blind, who operates more as a winger due to the style of play. The strength of this defence is undeniable, but the understanding between the players still has to develop and the central partnership is still being formed.
Whilst Siem de Jong (now captain) and Christian Eriksen remain the key creative outlets of the midfield, new acquisitions Lasse Schone and Christian Poulsen are still adapting to the Ajax system. De Boer’s style demands so much of them in the anchor role which Anita filled expertly in the second half of last season, becoming an integral part in the side winning the league.
Babel currently sits as the pinnacle of the Ajax attack, generally flanked by youngsters Jody Lukoki and Tobias Sana, the former enjoying his first full campaign in the senior squad and the latter an exciting acquisition following his move from IFK Goteborg in the summer. Babel’s understanding of De Boer’s system was seen against Utrecht, as he pushed out wide intermittently and linked up well with Eriksen and De Jong. He knew exactly where to go as Lukoki received the ball on the right flank and sent it towards the back post for Babel to slot home in the opening stages.
With a young team, which is desperately lacking experience, still developing and getting to know each other, Babel has thus far proved a fantastic signing for De Boer. His two goals have come at crucial times, as he opened his account to rescue a point against ADO Den Haag before netting against Utrecht, ensuring his side avoided a shocking defeat to Jan Wouters’s side. What’s more, Babel teed the ball up superbly for Christian Eriksen to smash past Nikolay Mihaylov and end Twente’s 100% record in the Eredivisie. Whilst Ajax have failed to hit the ground running this season, Babel has alleviated the troubles and ensured his side remain hot on the heels of Steve McClaren’s men, Dick Advocaat’s PSV and surprise package Vitesse.
The ex-Liverpool striker’s role in the team has changed dramatically from his first spell with the club. He has gone from learning from the likes of Galasek, Grygera, Ibrahimovic and Maxwell to teaching Lukoki, Sana, Van Rhijn and new arrival from De Toekomst Fabian Sporkslede. He offers guidance to the youngsters and a threat to opponents. He is an ally to perfectionist coach Frank de Boer who demands nothing but professionalism and total dedication from his players. And in return, the club has offered him a platform from which he can get his career back on track and, although it is early to say, it looks as though he has come a long way to developing one key aspect his game has been missing his whole career – consistency.
So far, Babel has grabbed the opportunity offered by Ajax with great determination to relaunch a career which looked so bright just five years ago. At 25, there is still time for him to secure a return to a top league.