Stewart Downing is kind of a throwback outside player. He directs all his play up and down the sideline, sends balls in via smoothly-struck, bending crosses and generally sticks to his winger/fullback duties with diligent predictability. While this doesn’t necessarily make him a bad player (in fact, it often made him a very dangerous one when he could get the ball on that magic left foot of his in the past), it ultimately makes him more a focused cog in the machine, than a game changing spark. And whether or not that’s entirely his fault, it’s reduced his impact to a point that (continues to) fall short of his hefty price tag.
What does seem a bit unfair however, is that Downing was initially brought over to Liverpool to act as a supply-line player, a traditional winger who can skirt past defenders with some pace and then immediately find finishers like Andy Carroll in the box with deft crossing. Only occasionally, between lovely link-ups with said bloated transfer fee buddy A. Carroll, was he also supposed to provide the odd finish here and there on his own. His playmaking status hinged on a very systematic, one-trick-pony-esque function… and although he certainly underachieved at that one function pretty regularly when Kenny Dalglish was in charge… now that Brendan Rodgers’ newly implemented “Swansea style” system is in full swing (or what appears to be full swing), he’s been even further reduced to a one-trick pony at the wrong carnival.
And yet Rodgers knows this. He knows this like he knew Andy Carroll could maybe still provide some value at Anfield, but ultimately not enough to justify his massive cost to the club financially and playing time-wise. There are other players better suited to the Rodgers system, and although Carroll could have been that striker off the bench thrust into games late to steal a goal with a total change of style and pace, Carroll would never have filled that role with a smile on his face. That would have made him a bonus player at Liverpool, with little hope to ever become the main event because he simply doesn’t fit the “ball at his feet” mold Rodgers needs to craft his stylistic vision. More simply, if you ever want to see what Brendan Rodgers can really do with Liverpool, cutting your losses and moving on from Andy Carroll was always going to be a necessary pill to swallow.
Downing may eventually suffer a similar fate, but his outside-mid position and assist-oriented function don’t cause the same high tension a central forward not scoring goals does. He could stick around, possibly wallow in relative mediocrity for the remainder of the season, and not draw nearly as much attention/anger from supporters as Carroll would have… but that never seemed like Rodgers’ plan. Instead, not content to see Downing play out the whole campaign as an ill-suited, substitute winger, Rodgers has resourcefully decided to switch Jose Enrique and Stewart Downing’s roles, in what appears to be a pretty brilliant short-term solution.
Jose Enrique brings new energy to the winger position, and his stronger possession skills and ability to pass while under duress make him a better fit in the Rodgers offense. He’s better equipped to participate in the stylish link up play, and better equipped to support an amazingly creative player like Luis Suarez, because he hasn’t had the luxury of relying on a golden left foot to cross with. He’s willing to be more creative because he needs to be.
At the other end, while no one’s ever labeled Downing anything close to a defensive guru, he gives an added overlapping attacking option that requires the more traditional skills a cross-happy outside mid can provide. He will need to tighten up his defensive positioning and tackling, but he’s actually being much better utilized offensively as an additional threat down the flank, rather than a primary one. As he continues to settle in, he could very well end the season with better statistics than he would have gained playing sporadically in his more natural spot.
Going back to Enrique, we have already seen two very different but equally impressive assists from him this season (not to mention a goal). One assist came on a perfectly struck long ball that set up the incredible Luis Suarez goal against Newcastle, and the other came on an Enrique run into the middle and a threading through ball that split two defenders to lead Suarez in stride against Wigan (media for your viewing pleasure below). It’s not Downing’s M.O. to try either of those balls to Suarez, and it’s because of that lack of creativity that he’s better used as a hard charging fullback who can lace in crosses ala Leighton Baines. Only time will tell whether Downing will actually emerge as a sustainable fullback, but the good news is the other half of the puzzle (Jose Enrique Sanchez) seems to be adjusting quite rapidly.
Assist to Luis Suarez against Newcastle
Assist to Luis Suarez against Wigan
For the time being the switch has worked well, and Liverpool are turning some of those frustrating draws into close victories. But eventually, Brendan Rodgers will want to pick his own players instead of adjusting those that he has inherited from Dalglish, and when that time comes it will likely spur an exodus of previous regime acquisitions just like Stew Downing.
Until then though, I guess he will just have to defend (for) his job.