While the Luis Suarez racism case has enveloped the club for the past couple of months, intense scrutiny on the performances of certain individuals on the pitch has become somewhat slacker. Summer signing Stewart Downing, who arrived from Aston Villa for the staggering amount of £20m, appears to be a player going through a serious crisis of confidence. The disparity between his performances on the pitch and his value off it are so great at the moment that it beggars belief that he ever cost that much in the first place. Is he Dalglish’s worst signing since returning back to the club?
The gigantic white elephant in the room is, of course, Andy Carroll. The £35m frontman does himself no favours, though. Arriving at the club as the ‘big man’ to Luis Suarez’s ‘little man’, the two have played very few games together. Carroll has either been in the process of returning to full fitness or has been out injured. It has been a never-ending cycle of disappointment.
The galling thing about Carroll is the misconception that Liverpool are not playing to his strengths. The club’s summer purchases of the likes of Downing, Henderson and Enrique were all geared towards getting the best out of Carroll and getting balls into the box. Liverpool, out of all the teams plying their trade in the top flight this term have had the most crosses.
Carroll has varied between lazy and disinterested. His work-rate is at times non-existent and he simply doesn’t look as strong as the bulldozing number nine of yesteryear at Newcastle. His hold up play resembles a man trying to control a balloon and more often than not, balls played up to him come straight back.
He’s not difficult to defend against for ninety per cent of the time, yet on that rare occasion when he does threaten, he can look a real handful. Carroll has been abysmal so far, let’s make no bones about it, but his one saving grace is that there is at least something to work with there. He has the potential to be a great number nine in the future, but only if he starts to believe in that himself and focus less on the price tag hanging around his neck and more on improving his performances on the pitch.
This brings us to Stewart Downing; a player whose reputation has always proved greater than the sum of his parts. Downing should be a byword for underperformance. The creeping suspicion is that he has always struggled when there has been any pressure placed upon him. Poor England performances against the likes of Andorra and Macedonia have become a hallmark of his international career.
Downing has never been blessed with pace and his strength is supposed to lay in his delivery from wide areas. In 20 Premier League games this season, Downing is without an assist. That is not to say, of course, that he has been complete and utter pony for the entire time, but more often than not his delivery leaves a lot to be desired. Frequently unable to beat the first man, too slow to take on a full back and with a worrying propensity to come in off the flank and narrow a midfield devoid of width in the first place even further – Downing has been a huge disappointment.
A lot of the disappointment originates due to the nature of his hefty price tag. Downing always performs well when he’s a big fish in a small pond. His final season at Villa, in a side little was expected of, Downing at times outshone Ashley Young – a player who himself started brightly at Man Utd but has since gone off the boil and faded terribly.
The relative size of the Downing fee appears to derive from two consequences. Firstly, the fact that Villa themselves appeared to have overpaid for him back in 2009 when he signed for £12m, which meant that even a modicum of success at Villa Park was bound to increase upon an already sizeable valuation due to the nature of his nationality, with English talent still acquiring a baffling premium.
Secondly, the fact that Villa were reluctant to let go of both of Downing and Young in one summer. Ashley Young moved first to Man Utd for £17m and this indirectly inflated the Downing valuation. Villa were in a strong bargaining position, Liverpool, having just been beaten by Man Utd to Young, were not.
In 46 efforts on goal this season, Downing is yet to trouble the scorers. For a player that cost £20m, that is a quite frankly appalling return. The contrast down the left flank alone is enough to make the blood boil – the machine that is Jose Enrique is quicker with the ball than Downing is without it.
Pundits aplenty have decried Liverpool’s lack of cutting edge this term, Dalglish even admitted as much himself after the defeat to Man City this week after calling on his side to develop a more clinical edge in front of goal.
A decent barometer of the toothless nature of Downing et al comes courtesy of the fantastic Opta stats – Liverpool, Man City and Chelsea have all had 282 shots on goal in the Premier League this season, the top three for such a stat in the entire league. Man City have had 132 efforts on target and have 56 goals to show for it. Chelsea from the same number of efforts on goal have been on target with 126 shots and have scored 39 times. Liverpool, however, have been on target with only 114 shots on goal and have a quite miserable return of just 24 goals, less than both Bolton and Blackburn.
It’s also worth pointing out that this Liverpool side have scored the exact same number of goals as Roy Hogson’s team had by this point last season. The difference between performances of the two sides is clear for all to see, though. Whereas Hodgson’s Liverpool were devoid of anything even resembling creativity, it’s clear from the aforementioned stats that at least Dalglish’s side are creating chances. The problem lies in the personnel, though, and their inability to finish them off, with Downing a main culprit.
Jordan Henderson may go missing at times and may appear too eager to play the simple option rather than risk the wrath of the terraces for trying something different, but his purchase has to be seen as a long-term investment and he’ll come good eventually, with him showing signs in the past few games in a more familiar central midfield position.
Carroll has been a huge disappointment and the only thing currently stopping him going down as the Premier League’s biggest ever flop is the fact that Fernando Torres cost Chelsea the princely sum of £50m on the same day. However, while he may have a lot of facets to his game that need improving, Liverpool fans should reserve a smidgen of hope that he’ll come good also. He’s not a ready-made striker and will require a lot of patience, but there is at least potential.
Downing, though, at 27 years of age should surely be approaching the peak of his powers. If a manager investing £20m in you and challenging you to help spearhead the rebuilding of a great club like Liverpool isn’t enough to give you confidence, I don’t know what is.
It looked a risky purchase at the time but it’s of no coincidence that the fates of Liverpool’s two biggest transfer mishaps in recent times are intertwined and their underperformance interlinked. Carroll at least has the excuse that the service hasn’t been up to scratch, though, whereas for Downing, there is no hiding place.