As the transfer deadline came and went, Liverpool supporters would have become painfully aware of two things. One was that the club’s owners had basically stabbed their manager in the back. Another was that yet again, instead of strengthening, a transfer window was mainly used to clear out deadwood (an expensive habit Liverpool have picked up). Kenny Dalglish had to remove trash like Paul Konchesky and Christian Poulsen while Brendan Rodgers got rid of Charlie Adam. But after the drama and disappointment, supporters would have noticed a third thing, sitting quietly in a corner. Stewart Downing remained on the payroll.
Stewart Downing, the eternal enigma. A man who at the time of joining Liverpool had created the fifth most chances in the Premier League since 2004, beaten only by Lampard, Gerrard, Giggs and Fabregas, yet contributed no goals or assists in the Premier League. A man with seemingly no confidence and only two moves in his offensive arsenal, but who tried (and succeeded) a rabona in a cup final. A man who is…secretly a damn good left back?
Signing Stewart Downing appeared to make sense at the time. Nice guy, (remember Liverpool’s last true winger was Albert Riera), Premier League proven and coming off a career best season at Aston Villa. The fact that he was 27 and entering his prime made that season look less like a statistical outlier and more a progression of Downing finally getting up to speed with being one of the main men at a reasonably big club. He had sent in the most crosses from open play over the last three Premiership seasons and Liverpool just happened to have a huge, pony-tailed mug in the middle to get on to them. A foolproof plan.
Then last season happened and all the best laid plans went off-target, like most of Liverpool’s shots. Stewart Downing started to resemble all of Liverpool’s failings; maddeningly inconsistent, inaccurate when it counted and worst of all, completely bereft of confidence when things went against him.
There is no way that Downing’s Liverpool career can be termed a success, but unlike others such as Adam and Joe Cole, he’s never been pushed far from first team action. This is true now, despite Liverpool’s lack of depth in wide forwards, but was also true last season when he often started ahead of Dirk Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez. Why?
One can reason that perhaps Downing’s first season at Anfield was just as much of an aberration as his last season at Villa Park. In order to register an assist, someone needs to score a goal. Downing did his job same as at Middlesbrough and Aston Villa, he created chances. They were just all spurned. He hit the post, lots, probably contributing to some of his confidence issues. His passing accuracy actually improved. He tracked back and seemed to be a willing runner (unlike Cole or Adam). Things can only improve.
So maybe Downing’s not a success, but at the same time, not a total failure. Liverpool’s awfulness at chance conversion didn’t help matters, but not all chances created are equal. Often Downing was the one hindering Liverpool’s ability to create the best possible chance with poor attacking movement and predictable wing play (cut inside and shoot, or stand up a cross). Fluidity and ingenuity are especially important in Brendan Rodger’s system where the offensive players constantly switch positions and open up space for one another. His passing accuracy improved, but more of his passes were played backwards, slowing tempo and making territorial dominance sterile. He tracked back but only pressed positively in spurts. He can do it, witness the energy in winning the ball back that led to Carroll’s goal in the FA Cup final. Even if last season wasn’t an outlier, Downing is never going to be worth £20 million.
Yet perhaps that doesn’t matter. Sunk costs should never influence decisions. Indications are that Downing can definitely be of service as a useful squad player especially because of Liverpool’s painfully shallow squad. As a left-back he’s solid, and not as questionable defensively as one would immediately assume, but nobody’s asking him to be Ashley Cole. If his minutes there prevent Jose Enrique from overexertion and the corresponding dip in form, he will have done more than enough.
The problem both Rodgers and Dalglish faced was how to make Downing into that useful squad player. The only solution appears to be an injection of confidence, clearly easier said than done. It says a lot that Downing only looked effective against Arsenal on Sunday when he started trying things out of desperation. A backheel set up a shot by Suarez that won a corner, a knock ahead took out two defenders and sent him inside the box. That mentality needs to become ever-present but only comes when a player has self-belief. Liverpool need to find a way to get that into Stewart Downing.