When an England international winger goes on sale in January, with 34 caps to his name, aged only 28 and about to hit his prime years as a footballer, it’s difficult to see how you wouldn’t have a small que of clubs looking to snap him up. That may still be the case, but after the 12 months Liverpool’s Stewart Downing has just endured, it certainly won’t be without an element of caution.
With the news that manager Brendan Rodgers has reportedly told Downing he can leave the club come the opening of next month’s transfer window, the end is looking nigh for the ex-Aston Villa man’s doomed spell up at Anfield. What was supposed to be a defining moment in Downing’s career has quickly turned into something resembling a nightmare.
When he was brought to Merseyside by messrs Kenny Dalglish and Damien Comolli in the July of 2011, there was of course little that Downing could do about the grossly inflated fee his new employers had just paid for him. It took a reported £20million to prise the left-winger away from Villa Park and despite a general acknowledgement of the premium that comes with buying British, expectations were hardly quashed in the wake of such a big money move.
Although even when supporters compensated for the exaggerated fee that the club paid for Downing, after setting up nine and scoring seven in an uninspiring Aston Villa side the previous season, what was to follow fell a staggeringly way short of the very minimum of expectations.
It’s a statistic that Downing must be sick to death of, but his failure to rack up either one solitary goal or assist in the Premier League for his club after 44 appearances and counting, is damning whichever way you choose to look at it. While Kenny Dalglish’s side was not without its faults, Downing’s contribution over the course of a season in which he played 36 of a possible 38 games, was nothing short of woeful.
By his own admission, Downing hardly shot out of the blocks last season, but what initially seemed like a difficult run of form soon seemed to spiral into a trough of continued regression. As his confidence seemed to crumble towards the end of last year, so did the most basic components of his game. At the very least, even if he’s not scoring or setting up goals, you expect that trademark whipped delivery as standard. At times last term, even that seemed to go to putty.
As his plight continues however, it’s difficult to not feel a small element of sympathy for the way things have turned out for Downing. He might have churned out the grand total of zero assists last term, but he wasn’t half let down by so many around him in the starting XI. Luis Suarez might resemble the all singing, all dancing goalscorer that’s stolen the plaudits this term, but last term, that wasn’t quite the case.
Suarez heads a long list of culprits guilty of continuously spurning chances last term and while some will argue you make your own luck in this game, Downing was desperately bereft of the stuff last term. Had someone tucked away one of his opportunities or had his rasping drive against Sunderland last August gone in, rather than cannoned off the crossbar, who knows how different things might have been? His confidence was ground to a pulp and if you’re a player that seems to flail without it, as Downing seems to be, then you’ve got a real problem.
Yet regardless of how poorly he may have performed last season, the shift in tactical philosophy that has come at Anfield with the ushering in of the Rodgers era, has ultimately played a more defining role in deciding Downing’s future than any one of his 46 games for the club last term.
The Ulsterman’s penchant for a forward thinking, mobile attacking unit doesn’t cater much for a winger whose strengths lay in the most traditional of moulds. Downing doesn’t possess the creativity or the ability to beat a man in the style of a Raheem Sterling of a Suso. His more defined set of skills aren’t particularly conducive within the free flowing, fluid style of play Rodgers wants his wide-men to adhere to.
But just because his skillset isn’t suited to the way in which Rodgers is trying to get this Liverpool side to play doesn’t mean for five minutes that it isn’t still of significant use to someone in this league. The last 12 months might have shredded his confidence, but there’s still a great player in there somewhere. He just needs the right environment to try and prosper once more.
Quite how much it’d take to prise a player who cost the Reds near on £20million a year-and-a-half ago remains unsure, but either way, you wouldn’t be surprised to see him leave Liverpool for nearly half as much. And if you take things back to basics, playing Downing in his more natural, traditional left-wing role, the rewards are there to be reaped.
Give him a remit to do what he does best; make those positive runs towards the full-back, ensure the forwards create the space for him to exploit and focus on getting that trademark deliver firing again once more.
If you play to these strengths and look to rebuild the confidence, considering the ability that we know Downing has in his locker, is it really such a punt after all? After eight seasons consistently performing at the highest level, one bad season doesn’t make a bad player. A vast majority of Premier League clubs would do well to remember that next month.