When Stewart Downing and Ashley Young left Aston Villa prior to the 2011/12 season, many thought that the club had taken a suicide pill. Whether Ashley Young has done justice to his price tag is a debate left entirely to the Manchester United contingent, few would argue that Stewart Downing isn’t really looking down upon his former Aston Villa teammate with a grin of pride in a Liverpool shirt.
Downing had scored seven goals and notched up nine assists before Kenny Dalglish saw him as the supply belt for Carroll at Liverpool. £20 million was not a subject of discussion at that point in time. It is when Downing started giving below-par performances and started disappearing acts during matches that people went back to the question – ‘Wait, how much did Liverpool pay for him again?’
Agreed, it has been a really difficult 19 months for Downing at Liverpool. However, we are all now reading a few jokes less on the winger and have instead started registering his impressive performances a bit more. What brought about this change in Downing’s game? Answer – Brendan Rodgers.
In retrospect, one can see that Downing emerges as the kind of player whose source of confidence is the team’s form. This doesn’t really put him up there as the ‘lead by example’ kind but in a team game like football, players with a positive attitude on the pitch add to the team’s mentality. And this is exactly what Brendan Rodgers has managed to do with Downing. Taking him from a lost and dejected £20-million flop to a player who now believes in himself and has started to showcase his abilities in training as well as the pitch is testament to good man-management. Compare this to his days last season when the club was developing a poor home record and was also losing to mid/low table teams at home and on the road while relying on a Suarez-Carroll partnership which never really took off and you will see that the Liverpool’s mental form indirectly affected Downing’s game a little more than we might have expected. The England international has started in 15 Premier League games so far this season and has come on as a substitute three times. That is definitely not bad for someone who was asked to leave before the start of the season by a manager who was himself not fully educated about the deep-lying problems of the club at the time.
Unlike goal-keepers, defenders and probably even strikers, wingers are the ones that are first to be replaced when the years build on them. Downing is going to turn 29 this summer, leaving him miles behind his existent, younger competition and the ones who are to arrive this summer. He knows this, he always knew this, ever since Rodgers took over; but it is this very fact that first spurred him on to fight harder for a place in the Liverpool starting line-up.
It is therefore safe to say that the winger has bloomed just in time for the good of his career. Halfway through the season you can see the competition that Rodgers has created for Downing to cope up with. Having a young, talented Brazilian in the squad who is probably going to sweep the Kop off its feet in the coming months means asking the rest of your squad to buckle up and deliver. And no one would’ve heard this message as loud and clearly as Stewart Downing.
“Competition for places is intense and it has brought out the best in some players including myself. If he does strengthen it’ll be good for the team, but if I keep doing well then he can’t leave me out.”
One more aspect where Brendan Rodgers has helped Stewart Downing build a case for himself is by the style of play he is striving to bring at Liverpool. The emphasis on passing and moving has helped Downing in more ways than one – it allows him to cut-in when playing on the right, bringing him closer to goal and creating an option of either setting someone else up or taking a shot himself. This is evident from the three assists he has to his name so far this season, having had none last year.
Liverpool’s new style of play also allows him to push forward while liaising with the full-back as well as the in-constant-motion midfield. This completely precludes the necessity to cross from deep or from out wide in high frequency in order to create chances for a giant of a target man, something which doesn’t suit Downing since he has never really scored high on his crossing accuracy.
If you watch the Downing of today, what you see is better first touches, better control in tight spaces, better vision and above all, better judgement. All these improvements have placed him ahead of the likes of Sterling, Suso and for the time being, even Coutinho. But it has, in no way, been an easy ride for the winger. A higher price tag consequently piles up more pressure on the club, manager and the player who isn’t performing to expectations.
Downing has had to feature in a variety of positions while being asked to give Rodgers a good reason to keep him at the club. Apart from playing in a attacking-midfield role on either side, Downing has had the enormous task of filling in at left-back for Enrique as a defender as well as a wing-back and playing right ahead alongside Luis Suarez before the arrival of Daniel Sturridge. Improving your game while adapting to new positions on the field is the perfect example of strong mental strength for any player.
At 28, no one has really sprinkled magic dust on the player. It is his pure determination and resilience that have transcended into strong performances. Liverpool need their existing roster to up the ante now more than ever. They are in danger of falling into a chasm of mediocrity at the moment but if players like Stewart Downing can exert their strength in lifting the team as he has been doing in the last few games, then it isn’t long before the Reds will be back to where they belong.