No one transfer has quite summed up the excess of the flawed approach to the transfer market during the Kenny Dalglish and Damien Comolli reign than Stewart Downing and under a new manager, he has a point to prove all over again in what must represent a make or break season for him at the club.
Liverpool paid a whopping £20m fee for him to Aston Villa last summer, seemingly because the club had already sold Ashley Young to Manchester United for £17m and were reluctant to part ways with both wingers in one transfer window, but as ever, money talks and the club got their man.
Out of all the big-money moves given the green light by Dalglish during his 18-month spell in charge, none have disappointed more than Downing. Andy Carroll arrived with the huge fee of £35m, but he still retains the faith of a large majority of the Anfield faithful for the simple reason that when he’s fit and on form, he can be a truly terrifying presence up front, capable of battering the opposition’s defence into submission and his form picked up towards the end of last season as he scored in both the FA Cup semi-final and final against Everton and Chelsea while dismantling John Terry in the league game at Anfield.
Jordan Henderson could still be some player and he’d burdened by expectations of what he should be rather than an accurate assessment of the player he is – quietly efficient, composed and above all, a player that keeps the game simple. Downing, however, came to the club with an already established reputation and at 27 years of age, without much room to manoeuvre in terms of future improvement or sell-on value. He was purchased off the back of a successful season for Villa during which he scored seven goals from midfield and displayed a maturity to his game, often finding himself starting in the middle of midfield. He was signed to provide the manager with more options in midfield, but his poor form only succeeded in causing headaches
Liverpool paid hugely over the odds for him simply because Aston Villa themselves did when they forked out £12m for him from Middlesbrough back in 2009-10. If we’re being honest, that’s about the maximum that you should ever play for someone of Downing’s quality, but when you factor in the English premium that you inevitably pay and the fact that he had improved markedly at Villa Park, then you are left with an inflated price that he was always going to struggle to justify.
I’ll set my stall out now, I’m a Downing sceptic – it’s not that I don’t believe he doesn’t exist (if only), but I’ve never been privy to his supposed powers. Of course, he can whip a decent ball in at pace from time to time, but he’s always looked as if he’s never quite had the pace to trouble a quality full-back, nor the trickery or guile to beat them on the inside.
At Liverpool last term, he could regularly be found guilty or narrowing the midfield, with a reluctance to take on and try and beat his man, while Jose Enrique at left-back was quicker with the ball than he was without it. He completed a pretty rotten 0.6 dribbles per match and failed to register a single assist or goal in 36 league appearances, 28 of which he started. Just to compare, Ashley Young, who enjoyed a similar move to a bigger club and who struggled after a bright start, completed 0.9 dribbles per match and finished the campaign with six league goals and seven assists from 19 starts and six substitute appearances.
Downing struck the only goal of the game during the side’s narrow 1-0 victory over FC Gomel in the Europa League last week in what was a fairly anonymous performance aside from that. He was used on both flanks during the match as Rodgers went with his preferred 4-3-3 system, with Joe Cole, then Raheem Sterling being used on the other side. New signing Fabio Borini often cut an isolated figure up front at times as the side struggled for match fitness against opponents already well into their league season.
Nonetheless, given that Craig Bellamy looks to be on his way out of the club to Cardiff, Maxi Rodriguez and Dirk Kuyt have already left and that Rodgers has a limited transfer budget, Downing could be set to be handed a key role over the coming season, as one of the more senior members of a fairly young squad.
It looks as if Rodgers is aiming to make his mark at the club, bringing an end to the English contingent’s privileged positions in the dressing room; they are no longer guaranteed a first-team place merely due to the nature of their hefty fee. Andy Carroll has already tasted the sharp end of the stick and unless he starts to perform, so will Downing.
Downing has always looked as if he struggles to cope with the pressure of playing for a big side – he has for Liverpool so far and in the majority of his 34 appearances for England since making his debut back in 2005. However, as a big fish in a small pond, he can often be seen to perform above expectations, like he did at Boro and Villa and with Anfield becoming a smaller pond than in years gone by, now is the time for him to step up. Another failure like last season will see him marginalised – fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.
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