Liverpool midfielder Stewart Downing looks to be running out of time to prove himself at the club and his recent and very public falling-out with manager Brendan Rodgers over his perceived lack of fight for his first-team place so far this season means he faces an uphill battle to turn his fortunes around.
The 39-year-old former Swansea boss took over the reins at Anfield in the summer and has quickly set about making his own mark on the side, marginalising to an extent every single one of Kenny Dalglish’s purchases, Luis Suarez aside, with Downing the latest in the firing line, but does Rodgers have a point?
Speaking to the press last week in reference to the England international and the seriously out-of-form Jose Enrique, Rodgers had plenty to say about what he expects from his players.
“What is important is that you have good communication,” Rodgers revealed.
“I don’t waste time waiting until January to tell both players what I know now. So they know in relation to the demands of what we want and certainly what it is going to take for us to succeed and for them to fit into the group.
“We will give them everything to help them to be better, but if they don’t want to show that self-motivation – and if they haven’t got that desire and hunger to succeed – then it can be very difficult.
“Stewart is a good guy but it hasn’t quite worked out for him as he would want it. The big challenge for him now is that commitment to the cause – to fight – because he has the qualities.
“Talent alone is not enough. You have to work hard; you have to fight for the shirt. I will keep private the discussions Stewart and I have had but he is under no illusion that he has to fight.”
Downing has been frustratingly inconsistent since arriving at the club for £20m from Aston Villa last summer and while the no goals, no assists statistic has been worn to death over the course of the last year, it pointed just as much to the rest of the side’s profligacy in front of goal as his own poor form.
Nevertheless, far too often he narrows the midfield, refuses to take the full-back on and opts for the easy option of passing the ball inside. He hasn’t really played like a £20m player at any point during his short stay at the club so far, in terms of either ability or the responsibility he’s assumed and he looks as if he struggles to cope with the pressure of playing for a big club, particularly one that’s fallen on hard times. Rodgers clearly has a point with his critique of Downing and he’s not too far off in his assessment at all, but surely he would have been better continuing to address his concerns behind closed doors.
Downing responded to his manager’s comments after being left out the last weekend’s squad to face Stoke.
“Bravery is a lot of things – it’s not just about tackling. That’s not my game. My bravery is about taking the ball when you are losing a game and trying to create things, which is what I try to do.
“You will have to ask the manager exactly what he meant. I was surprised that he came out with what he did. I have spoken to him on numerous occasions when I wasn’t in the team and that was private.
“So, of course I’m upset, but I’m not going to go running around tackling people because that’s not my game. I’ve got three years left on my contract and I’m going nowhere.”
Labelling yourself as limited and unwilling to work back for the good of the side seems an odd retort from the player and all is clearly not well between the pair, but is Rodgers handling him in the right way? It bears a certain correlation to the way Andy Carroll was treated before being farmed out on loan to West Ham, constantly reassured of his future at the club, but then talked about in public as potentially being up for sale if the right offer came in. It undermines not only the player’s already fragile confidence, but leaves the club in a situation whereby the player may not ever be able to return while Rodgers is at the helm.
Downing’s performance against Udinese in the Europa League was one of his finest to date in a red shirt on the right of an attacking trio, but he’s even been mooted as a potential left-back in the future, which again calls into question whether Rodgers should really be airing things like that in public, as it creates a tense atmosphere which the press is only likely to prey upon in an attempt to drive a wedge between a tetchy relationship even further.
After seeing his starting spot go to Raheem Sterling, fellow youngster Suso has also leapt over Downing in the pecking order and it can be disheartening – particularly with your manager calling into question your ability to suit his system in your preferred role and questioning your commitment – to ever win your place back or get on the good side of your boss with under so much pressure to perform.
It’s difficult to defend Downing’s performances since signing for the club because on the whole, they simply haven’t been good enough, but you could be forgiven for certainly feeling a little sorry for him and his latest predicament, playing under a manager who clearly doesn’t either fancy playing him or even trusting him, while he continually runs to the media in an attempt to explain himself and receive instant gratification for his course of action.
His time at the club looks certain to be coming to an end, and that’s not a dramatic overstatement by any means, for Rodgers has shown an alarming propensity to ditch players from the past regime for their failures rather than attempting to mould them and integrate him into his new vision for the club. Much like with Carroll, it looks as if Downing’s face simply doesn’t fit and you do have to question Rodgers handling of this latest situation.
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