WE approach that time of the season again when what happens at Liverpool FC has as much to do with the future as here and now. Every player in the squad is trying to convince the manager they should be in the first team when next season kicks off, and we as fans already have one eye on the team sheet for mid-August.
It’s only been a month or so since the January window closed, and after a few quiet weeks the fire of speculation and discussion is gradually reawakening.
In January it feels as if the season is still quite young, but now we enter its final quarter, with only nine games left to make an impression.
For some players these nine games will be more crucial than for others, and none more so than Stewart Downing. Since the day he signed he has had to cope with the expectation coming with the £20m price tag, and he has suffered from it. Many a time I have thought about the shot that hit the bar in the opening game of last season against Sunderland. We all know how big a deal confidence is in football; had that shot gone two inches lower, we could have seen another Downing than what we saw as the season progressed.
I don’t think he was as bad as he was made out to be last season, as I think the whole ‘no goals, no assists’ thing got blown out of proportion – especially the assists. These things have to be seen in a certain context.
Looking at the numbers we can see he created eleven clear cut chances – more than the likes of Ashley Young and Juan Mata, only three fewer than David Silva – and generally started his Anfield career in bright fashion, numbers aside. He made positive contributions; he took his man on, got to the byline and crossed the ball. Pretty much what we expected from him.
However, not getting on the score sheet was a big letdown, and he gradually withdrew more and more into his shell. I think this is the main gripe many Liverpool fans have: instead of knuckling down, he crumbled. The pressure eventually got to him.
It may be unfair of me to hold this against him. Footballers are after all mere human beings like the rest of us. Bottom line though is: expectations come with the privilege of pulling on the red shirt, and if you can’t handle it you are not fit to wear it. As simple as it is brutal.
My personal assessment of Downing this season: it seemed to me as if he started off with a defeatist attitude – like he carried last season with him. His general play has gradually improved though and he now plays his role in the team quite satisfactory; he’s disciplined enough to stay wide to open up the pitch when we need to, and he’s not one of those players who demand the ball all the time to make an impact.
He’s sort of a Steady Eddie on the wing, in the sense that he’s tactically sensible and doesn’t make many mistakes. Every team needs someone who can be the selfless runner and offer movement to the more creative players, and Downing does that to a certain degree.
He puts in a decent shift and plays his role as a support player in the system. Against Wigan he even attacked the box, and got his reward by netting his second league goal this season. Add the three assists he has got to his name and it doesn’t look disastrous, considering he has started sixteen games – a couple of them at left-back. In terms of clear cut chances he has created six this season; only Luis Suarez and Jose Enrique have created more, with eleven and seven respectably. As with LFC in general: take away the first couple of months and it looks decent.
When we make our conclusions based on what we have seen this season, is it in sum, enough to keep a regular starting spot in a team who wants to get back into the Champions League?
For me it’s a definite no, partially based on the fact that he didn’t start fighting until Rodgers gave him a swift kick up the backside. That’s not good enough for me; it indicates a character who is comfortable with mediocrity and it’s the main reason why I don’t want him in the starting eleven next season.
The numbers in this article are taken from EPL Index: http://www.eplindex.com/
Find me on Twitter @ChristerEikrem