By Justin Fitzgerald
Much has been made of Stewart Downing’s recent lack of form with the Liverpool winger seemingly more interested in taking on ex girlfriends at night clubs than opposing defenders on the pitch. So what’s happened? Is this just a crisis of confidence or have the wheels completely come off? Were they really ever on to begin with?
You certainly couldn’t argue with Downing’s form during the 2004/05 season with Middlesbrough, netting 6 goals and a promotion to the English national team. Unfortunately the winger suffered a setback in 2006 with a serious knee injury, but was able to bounce back in 2007/08 with 9 goals in 38 appearances. After moving to Aston Villa in 2009, Downing solidified himself as a regular on the national team and had another really solid season by any standard in 2010/11 with 7 assists and 7 goals. The question presents itself, did Liverpool pay too much for a player who was quickly reaching or past his prime? Even if you factor in the “English Premium” for transfer targets, £20 million is truly a staggering sum. For someone who has made an incredibly successful living “buying low and selling high,” John Henry and Co. made some curious decisions in the summer of 2011. Whether the move was made under the influence of a cleverly doctored youtube video or through the persuasive sweet-talkings of Damien Comolli, so far this has turned out to be far from a bargain.
If Tottenham ends up with the league title this year Liverpool’s current Director of Football will certainly deserve some of the credit for putting the pieces together with key signings during his tenure at Spurs. That being said, there’s a flip side to that coin and for every Gareth Bale there’s a David Bentley. With 15 games to go it may be too small a body of work to truly judge Comolli’s success, however with nearly £50m spent last summer failing to qualify for the Champions League would truly be a disappointment.
Before the season started Comolli praised the efficient play of Downing, but take a closer look at the numbers and decide for yourself.
The left is 2010/11 Aston Villa – the right is 2011/12 Liverpool
Keep in mind this is 36 starts for Aston Villa vs. 20 currently for Liverpool as there are 15 games yet to be played, even still there are interesting parallels and conclusions to be drawn from this comparison. One thing that jumps out is how his crossing accuracy is roughly the same yet he has no assists this season vs. seven last season with Villa. This likely has something to do with the fact that Liverpool currently boast a league worst chance conversion ratio of 8.5% and I can think of 3 golden chances wasted (Kuyt vs. Man United, Carroll vs. Swansea, and Suarez vs. QPR) off the top of my head. Another interesting comparison is open play pass completion, currently 85% vs. 78% with Villa. This however is due to a newfound love for backward passes. Gone is the tenacity to take players on and the natural width and opportunity that it creates and for me this contributes to Liverpool’s most glaring shortfall this season – chance conversion. All you have to do is compare Liverpool’s current 8.5% chance conversion ratio to that of Aston Villa’s 13% last season. That 4.5% difference represents an additional 15 goals (44 @ 13% vs. 29 @ 8.5%) and undoubtedly a higher position than seventh on the league table.
I think it’s fair to say that Stewart Downing has been unlucky so far this season having hit the post on 3 occasions and seeing the majority of his crosses wasted, that being said his play seems to be trending in the wrong direction culminating with a dismal performance at Old Trafford last weekend. Downing looked completely out of his element and uncomfortable against United, refusing to do anything remotely creative on the outside and constantly leaving Enrique (who had all he could handle with Valencia) exposed in the back. If this continues Kenny will certainly have some difficult decisions to make, and it may be too late to save the season of a player whose confidence and body language exhibit a desire to be anywhere other than on the pitch.