5 Things Stewart Downing Needs to Do If He Really Wants to Stay at Liverpool
Stewart Downing has been the subject of some unwanted attention over the past couple of weeks or so after losing his place in the Liverpool team to a pair of untried teenagers and, most recently, failing to even make the substitutes bench in the Premier League.
All this is a far cry from what was expected of the former Aston Villa man when he arrived for around £20 million only 15 months ago in one of the five highest fees the Reds had ever paid for a new signing.
Downing has spoken about fighting for his place recently to the club's website:
I'll fight for my place here. I have done that since I was 10 years old when I was trying to get through at Middlesbrough. I fought very hard when I was at Aston Villa to do well for them and get a good move to Liverpool. The only thing I can do is keep working hard and when the chances come, make sure I take them. Things can quickly change. This time next month, I could be playing every week.
But exactly what is it he needs to do to win back a spot in the Reds' first XI?
Train Harder and Show His Abilities Every Day
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Here's the first thing: senior professionals can feel like they've been around the block, served their time and shown what they are about, and therefore should be picked on merit of what they've already achieved.
Unfortunately, showing here and there why a player became seen as "good" just isn't enough; for the clubs with ambitions of reaching the heights of the domestic league and winning multiple cup competitions with regularity, the star players and the supporting cast need to be reaching their best form on a regular basis.
Here's what manager Brendan Rodgers has had to say previously—not merely with regard to Stewart Downing, but about everybody in any team to The Anfield Wrap blog:
...it’s no point saying, ‘I’ll show you what I'm like if I can get 15-20 minutes on the pitch.’ You have to show me what you’re like every single day of your life. To fight for the shirt. Not just if you’re going to get 15 minutes on a Saturday or a Sunday or a Thursday.
In this context Rodgers was specifically talking about youngsters getting their initial chances, but the same absolutely and undoubtedly applies to the more seasoned members of the squad.
Does Downing do this?
Unless you sit watching every training session, you can't be sure. But the feeling seems to be that Downing doesn't work hard enough and certainly hasn't shown the best form that he has in every match, or even most matches, that he has been selected to play in.
Respect Those in the Team, Respect the Management, Respect the Club
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Latterly, Downing has been unhappy at some quotes made by his manager about how he is perceived to lack the "fight" that is required.
That conversation did not spare Downing from knowing exactly where he stood at the club, along with others perhaps such as Jose Enrique when Rodgers spoke to the Guardian:
The big challenge for him now is that commitment to the cause to fight, because he has the qualities. He has a wonderful left foot but what is important is that it is more than talent. Talent alone is not enough. You have to work hard, you have to fight for the shirt. We have seen that in a number of the young players and if you don't do that, then longer-term you won't be here. It is as simple as that really.
Clearly, Rodgers acknowledges that Downing has within him an ability to play football at the highest level—it is his mentality and his aptitude to work hard that is coming under question.
After starting the first game of the season in the starting XI, Downing, 28, has since lost his place in the Premier League side to 17-year-old Raheem Sterling, with 21-year-old Fabio Borini and 18-year-old rookie Suso also chosen ahead of him since then.
Just weeks into the season, it became apparent that the manager had real concerns about Downing's ability to provide quality in the final area of the field, commenting that it may be that a switch to left-back would be the England international's best chance of getting game time.
The question and the lesson here is not, "Is Brendan Rodgers right for saying all this?" Not in the slightest is this the question.
What is important is that it doesn't matter. Rodgers is the boss. Rodgers is in charge, and Rodgers picks the team.
Stewart Downing might not like it and he might not agree with it, but it's just tough. If he thinks that he should be playing, then there's a way to show it and prove the manager wrong, and it is most certainly not through bizarre comebacks through the media like this one to Sky Sports contradicting his manager:
I was upset and you'll have to ask the manager what he meant with that quote. I would have preferred if it was private but that's the way it is. We've had a few conversations and the only thing for me is to keep working hard and take my chance when I get it.
Show in Matches the Talent He Clearly Believes He Has
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That last quote wasn't the end of Downing's defence of his own game, either.
Not only does he believe he has the fight, but also the ability to play in the Reds' team.
After Rodgers stated that ability and talent were also matched in importance by mentality and bravery, Downing countered with in the Mirror:
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. That’s what I try to do. You will have to ask the manager exactly what he meant.
Really, Stewart? Do you really want to tread this path?
Let's examine the "bravery" of Liverpool's winger from last season and see just how much he tried to take the ball and try to create things.
As a winger, one of the most basic expectancies of the player would be—as he clearly thinks he himself does—to get on the ball, run at the defence and fashion opportunities to cross or pass to his team-mates, or perhaps even shoot.
Let's ignore entirely the "zero goals, zero assists" statistic; it's well known and there are mitigating circumstances around at least half of it.
During last season, the 2011-12 campaign, Downing completed an average of 0.6 dribbles per game. Over his 36 league appearances, he successfully dribbled the ball past defenders, showcasing his bravery and creativity, on a total of 22 occasions.
Raheem Sterling, the 17-year-old with barely more than a dozen first-team appearances to his name, has already made 19 successful dribbles in just six league appearances.
Downing's crosses, then: Over the course of the league season he averaged a 23 percent success rate at finding a team-mate when crossing the ball. As a percentage, it doesn't seem too bad initially, but look further into the raw numbers: 45 times out of 199.
That equates to finding a team-mate with a cross an average of 1.25 times each and every game.
Barely a single successful cross, and not even a single successful dribble, each and every game.
Achieve the Consistency He Has Frequently Been Lacking
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Anybody who has watched Liverpool over the past year-and-a-bit with regularity won't need statistics or newspaper quotes to know that Stewart Downing, quite simply, has no consistency.
In fact, anybody who has watched Stewart Downing at any point over the past half a dozen years will know the same thing—even following a perceived good season, he will follow it up with an exceedingly average one.
Now at Liverpool, Downing appeared last season to even struggle with finding consistency within a single game; he could have a good impact in the first half and be utterly anonymous after the break.
Too often, he would go missing for games at a stretch.
In the opening game of the 2011-12 season, Downing embarked on a winding run, cutting infield and spanking the ball against the crossbar from distance; had it gone in, perhaps we would have witnessed the birth of one of the Reds' standout performers of the season.
It didn't, and that was arguably as good as it got for Downing in the Premier League.
Tactical Improvement and Have a Telling Impact in the Final Third
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Consistency, attitude, training hard, talent.
If Downing can get them all in order, he'll be in the team at some point. How does he stay there?
The answer is simple, really: have a positive impact on Liverpool's attack.
Kids or no kids, Luis Suarez or no Luis Suarez, there can be no doubt that there are still at least one or two places up for grabs in Liverpool's attacking line-up.
The goals aren't yet flowing quite as freely as they could and if someone proves they can score or provide them by way of assists, that player is likely to be a mainstay in the side.
What should the Reds have expected from Downing last season?
Prior to signing, presumably Damien Comolli and Kenny Dalglish would have looked closely at Downing's statistics from the season before, where he scored seven times in the league for Aston Villa and claimed seven assists.
Comparing the "Villa 10-11" Downing and the "Liverpool 11-12" one, we can see some real similarities.
Defensively, he was almost identical, losing possession of the ball with the same regularity and winning a tackle similarly (around 74 percent success rate).
But in that critical final third, where Downing—as a winger, at least—needs to have a big impact, even though the statistics are similar in terms of attempts, the end product is shockingly dissimilar.
A chance created every 40 minutes at Villa became one every 45 at Liverpool, so why the drop from seven to zero assists?
Was it the poor finishing in general of the team last year? Undoubtedly so in some instances. But all? Downing can't control the forward's finish, but it's his job to ensure the service and the chance being created is of as high a quality as possible, and they weren't, certainly not always.
At both Villa in his final season and Liverpool last year, Downing averaged a shot on goal every 130 minutes—yet never beat the 'keeper last year.
Poor finishing? Lacking in confidence? Or just the 'keeper having a worldie?
Downing has goals in him, no doubt. He's already scored in the Europa League and provided an assist in the same competition, but he's done none of it in the Premier League where it really matters.
To be brutally up front about the situation, there's a long way back for Stewart Downing before he even has to remotely worry about this last set of statistics.
The fact that Joe Cole—recently returned from yet another injury and equally exasperating for the fans to see on the bench—was picked ahead of Downing on the bench against Stoke City speaks volumes for where the winger is placed in the manager's thoughts right now.
Downing needs to keep quiet, get his head down, work hard—and drastically improve all areas of his game.
Otherwise, a January exit will swiftly beckon for another of last year's signings.
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