I’ve said on plenty of occasions that the fortunes of the England national team don’t keep me awake at nights. The fortunes of Liverpool, though, can turn me into an irascible, unlovable, miserablist. So it was with a red hat on that I watched last night’s friendly against Sweden. I was on Downing watch.
When Liverpool signed Stewart Downing in the summer I was neither ecstatic nor angry. On one hand, I remembered his timid performances for the national team over the last few years, but on the other, I saw Villa on TV quite a lot last season and was impressed with the way he switched flanks, scored goals with either foot, drove at defences and created a lot of chances for Darren Bent and Ashley Young. Being left-footed he would provide us with balance and, if not lightning, he can certainly beat the full-back on the inside or the outside.
And this is how he started the season. But as Liverpool’s form and football has dropped off, Downing has been a passenger in games. With a goals and assist column that make up the first two numbers of James Bond’s agent number, he has often looked good but with no end product.
His performance last night for England then - where he was unlucky not to pip the excellent Kyle Walker for Man of the Match – has raised the question of why he can play so well for the national team (something he also did against Bulgaria) but stutter for Liverpool. The most potent attacking force on the pitch last night, he constantly demanded the ball, drove at players with confidence and, in the periods of mediocrity, tried to liven it up and force the issue.
After the game, Roy Keane couldn’t resist saying ‘Downing’s got his supposed big move to Liverpool,’ and although that reminded me why he is the player I would have most liked to have taken out at both Achilles, his comments afterwards do have an element of truth. Stating that he’d always liked him as a player, he wondered if ‘he has the heart to take games by the scruff of the neck.’
In a nutshell, he doesn’t. Downing is not going to smash into players and try and do it all on his own. He is a team player who responds to movement and quality around him and the space that this creates. And this is where Liverpool come in.
With Andy Carroll in the starting line-up, Liverpool have a problem with stretching the play high up the pitch. Suarez’s game isn’t about running onto flick –ons, El Pistolero prefers to drop into pockets of space, get his head up and start to create. If the players around him are fast and intelligent enough, they will go long, deep and wide to increase the space he has to play in. At present, with Bellamy not starting, Downing is really the only one with the pace to run on past Suarez (something that the departed Meireles was excellent at). Opposing managers will have noticed this and provided detailed plans to close him down which means Suarez increasingly has to try and do it on his own.
I love Dirk Kuyt. Industrious, narky and scorer of important goals, he is a player you would love to play with. However he is not a winger (nor, for that matter, is Jordan Henderson). If you wish to play a high-tempo game as Liverpool do, rather than a more continental approach as favoured by Manchester City who play narrow and let everything go through David Silva with Aguero and Dzeko pulling defences into positions they feel uncomfortable in, then you need players on both flanks to do this. Young and Downing last season at Villa illustrated this point, and it helped that Bent was happy to prowl in and around the box and keep defenders occupied. Ditto last night. Zamora did his running high up the pitch and provided an outlet for the wide men and midfield, England had Walcott on the other flank and so the play could be varied.
It would be easy to say that ‘it’s only Sweden’, yet that argument can be countered with ‘it was only Swansea or Norwich’. This piece is not a dig at Dalglish hidden behind a tactical report, far from it, he’s the only man I’ve fallen in love with twice, and I do believe that there is still a place in the Premier League, certainly at home, to play the kind of fast attacking football that we showed in the first half against Sunderland and at times against Manchester United.
The problem is at the moment we only have a few players who can do it. Benitez and Hodgson both played a more cerebral game. Benitez relied heavily on the Gerrard and Torres combination and Hodgson, disastrously, tried to impose systems that had worked at smaller clubs on a group of internationals. If Liverpool can secure the services of an international class right winger and a striker with searing pace (or play Bellamy from the start, witness his goal for Wales last weekend) to worry defences and open up pockets of space, then Suarez and Downing will benefit. If we don’t, then Downing and Suarez will struggle to reproduce their international form and Liverpool will continue to make hard work of scoring goals.
Bring on January. YNWA.
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