Since joining Liverpool from Aston Villa for £20m last summer, Stewart Downing has spectacularly failed to live up to his substantial price tag - failing to register a single goal or assist in the Premiership last season. The England international, like his compatriots Jordan Henderson and Andy Carroll, endured an underwhelming debut season at Anfield, struggling to cope with the added pressure and expectation that comes with a big money move.
In what was an otherwise uneventful game, Downing’s goal against FC Gomel last night served as a timely reminder to both the fans and his new boss, Brendan Rodgers, of just what Downing can offer when on form: cutting inside from the right flank on to his stronger left foot, he unleashed a rasping shot from twenty-five yards to give Liverpool the win and put them in a strong position to going in to the Europa League qualifying second leg at Anfield next week.
Still, nothing can really be extrapolated from the game, and with the greatest of respect to Gomel, one goal in what was, essentially, a glorified friendly will not change people’s views on Downing, but a positive start to the season is just what he needs if he is going to prove his critics wrong and get his Liverpool career back on track. Goals from midfield were sorely lacking from the squad last season, and Downing has now already scored half as many as he did last season, hopefully starting as he means to go on.
If Downing gets no joy from his defender and fails to have any impact early on in the game, he goes in to his shell and just sticks to playing the safe option.
Downing will be hoping to put last season’s disappointment behind him. Despite not fitting Fenway Sports Group’s transfer policy, he was signed at the behest of Kenny Dalglish who saw the winger as his prime transfer target. His debut against Sunderland on the opening day of the season epitomised the misfortune that would plague both Downing and Liverpool throughout the rest of the campaign. Picking the ball up in his own half, he went on a fantastic run, beating three defenders before crashing a thumping effort from twenty-yards off the bar.
Whenever Downing created chances he was let down by his teammates; often the service was there, but the finish was lacking. Dalglish had hoped that the signing of Downing would help get the best out of Andy Carroll. Unfortunately, there were countless good chances that Downing created for Carroll but the big forward couldn’t finish. It’s a shame, as had he scored even half of them who knows how the season would have turned out – can’t beat a bit of masochism, eh?
You can generally tell within the first ten minutes of a match what sort of performance is forthcoming from Downing. If he manages to beat the full back and create a chance early on, often he will fancy his chances and gain the confidence to go on to have a good game. However, if he gets no joy from the defender and fails to have any impact early on in the game, he goes in to his shell and just sticks to playing the safe option.
He has all the tools to be a very effective winger; he’s quick, comfortable using either foot and capable of whipping in a devastating cross - but his lack of self-belief is preventing him from making the most of his talent.
Ultimately, the biggest obstacle facing Stewart Downing is Stewart Downing. He has all the tools to be a very effective winger; he’s quick, comfortable using either foot and capable of whipping in a devastating cross - but his lack of self-belief is preventing him from making the most of his talent. Whenever the team was struggling he would be invisible on the pitch, and unless Brendan Rodgers can help Downing become more mentally resilient, he’ll never justify his price tag.
He may be granted a stay of execution through necessity, though. Liverpool were already in need of reinforcements in the wide areas before Maxi Rodriguez and Dirk Kuyt left the club, and with Craig Bellamy strongly linked with a return to Cardiff, Downing may well be the only recognised winger in the first team squad. Whilst the likes of Joe Cole, Jordan Henderson, Luis Suarez and Fabio Borini have all played out wide in some capacity, it is by no means their strongest position and the Reds can ill afford to lose their one natural winger unless they first bring in a replacement.
Whether he can adapt to the demands of Rodgers, who expects his wide players to play more as inside forwards rather than archetypal wingers, remains to be seen, but it’s impossible for him to be any worse than he was last season.
Looking further down through the ranks, Jordan Ibe and Raheem Sterling will offer some level of competition to wide positions. Both are highly rated by the club and the diminutive duo impressed on Liverpool’s recent tour of North America, but the pair are still only 16 and 17 respectively and, whilst they will get chances if they continue to develop, it is unfair to have to rely on the youngsters and expect them to come in to the first team and significantly contribute straight away.
Whilst the vast majority of Reds fans would be glad to see the back of Downing, it is looking likely that he will be given the chance to prove himself under Brendan Rodgers this season. Whether he can adapt to the demands of Rodgers, who expects his wide players to play more as inside forwards rather than archetypal wingers, remains to be seen, but it’s impossible for him to be any worse than he was last season. He’s certainly started this one in the right fashion.
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