Stewart Downing: hits and misses

Stewart Downing of Liverpool in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Sunderland at Anfield on January 2, 2013 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)

Stewart Downing received the ball, ran 25 yards and fired a shot at goal, rattling the woodwork at the Annie Road End at Anfield. It was his first taste of action as a Liverpool player. That impressive-looking, but ultimately impotent, charge from the wings broadly summed up his first season as a Red.

By the end of that season, Downing was being regarded as a poor player; a byword for ineffective football.  Of course, we now know that he is capable of more than that. He is a useful conventional winger you can stick into most mid-table sides unhesitatingly. He was rather unfairly slapped with a £20 million price tag that he did not deserve and has struggled to live up to.

Given the number of snide barbs he accumulated over the last two years, it is easy to write off the ex-Middlesborough man as a ‘nothing’ footballer. In cold numerical terms, Liverpool have taken a major financial hit on him – £12 million by a conservative estimate. But statistics can swing both ways : Downing’s figures for 2011-12 are not so poor when weighed empirically; and he helped Liverpool win their only trophy in those 2 years with a man-of-the-match performance in the League Cup final. His departure provides an opportunity to play Monday morning centre-back, and do some reel-based analysis.

Statistics

Taking a look at an EPL Index analysis, Downing didn’t really lack for creativity in 2011-12. Quoted: “His crossing accuracy of 23% isn’t something to be laughed at, while the England international created 55 chances, 11 of which were clear cut. This shows that he did manage to create chances and his poor stats may be partially down to his team-mates’ poor finishing. He created a chance every 45 minutes”.

His problems were not of his making alone, but perhaps lay at the end of the pipeline: with two wasteful finishers leading the line (Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez), Liverpool were torrid in front of goal. Unsurprisingly, the team drew or lost several low-scoring contests, particularly towards the end of season. Additionally, Kenny Dalglish’s formations were sometimes so defensive and devoid of imagination that many forwards across Europe individually outscored the entire Liverpool team that season. This helps explain why Downing’s assists column took a while to get going.

Courtesy EPL Index

As we can see here, his second season at Liverpool was comparable to his final season at Aston Villa (when you ignore stats like ‘successful dribbles’ and come to the ones that count: chances created, goal assists etc). That final season at Villa was the most successful of his career (7 goals, 8 assists). And he was quite effective during Europa League 2012-13, recording Liverpool’s opening goal in the campaign and staying a vital player throughout.

How did Downing get psyched out?

Stewart Downing of Liverpool in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Liverpool at Villa Park on March 31, 2013 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

In 2011-12, with most of the team playing poorly, it was to be expected that someone would be singled out as a target – and while Carroll was getting some returns, Downing wasn’t.  He had gone from the best season of his career to his worst. Adding to that was the £20 million albatross hanging around his neck. From Left Wing Jesus to Dalglish Dud in one year – it would be a major knock to anyone’s confidence.

It did not help that Downing lacked the mental strength you need to succeed at Liverpool – or any top side for that matter. At the Kop, a player must offer spirit and character in addition to talent, in order to be truly accepted by the one entity that can decide stardom – the fans. Players are expected to demonstrate a level of desire equivalent to that of Jamie Carragher, who fought cramps for half an hour to deny Shevchenko and Kaka in the 2005 Champions League final.

And Downing lacked these attributes. His confidence began deteriorating as the 2011-12 season spun out of control. By April, he cut a frustrated figure on the touch lines, walking around aimlessly while the match was in progress, looking the least likely to force a breakthrough. As his motivation slipped, his form slid even further. The vicious circle was complete.

Brendan Rodgers identified the signs correctly when he arrived; and due credit to him for pulling the player out of the hole he’d dug for himself. In a series of pep talks, Rodgers told him that he had to fight for his place in the team. Then, employing the Arsene Wenger principle, Rodgers told the media that Downing could no longer be sure of his spot. Predictably, Downing said the comments had upset him. He was promptly hauled over the coals for his whining. Five months and a more consistent run of form later, Downing was thanking the manager for resurrecting his motivation.

Replacements

Downing’s principal strength – crossing – is no longer relevant to a team that requires inside forwards and play makers operating in that zone. And there are several waiting in the wings – literally – to stake claim: Raheem Sterling, Jordan Ibe, Luis Alberto and Oussama Assaidi. Additionally, the two senior full-backs, Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique, are quite comfortable going forward (a little too comfortable, given that their primary job is to defend).

Given that Downing was brought to Anfield primarily to supply Carroll, it is perhaps appropriate that both men have left Liverpool in the same transfer window. They’ve both joined West Ham, where Sam Allardyce’s aerial style of play will no doubt suit both to a T.

Downing’s performances in the Europa League and the latter half of the EPL 2012-13 season bear out his calibre. But, like Carroll, he was not a player Liverpool needed.

And the club are several million pounds the wiser for it.

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