Most football fans recognize Liverpool winger Stewart Downing as one of the biggest transfer flops in Anfield history. Bought from Aston Villa for around £20 million in 2011, Downing was a part of Kenny Dalglish’s FSG financed summer spending spree that included the purchases of Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam, and Brazilian goalkeeper Doni. Downing, along with the other new signings, suffered an absolutely miserable start to his Anfield career by all accounts, failing to score a single goal or record a single assist during his debut EPL campaign with the Reds last year. This year, however, Downing has experienced a bit of a renaissance, winning back his place in the Liverpool starting XI after being told he could leave in January by new Reds boss Brendan Rodgers. Thus far, Downing has scored 2 goals and recorded 3 assists in the EPL, obviously an improvement over last season. In this avid Liverpool supporter’s eyes, Downing has improved markedly since last season.
However, will statistics back me up?
This article will examine Downing’s form over the past three seasons (2010/11 with Aston Villa, and 2011/12 and 2012/13 with Liverpool), as well as compare him with two other wingers from around the league this season: Ashley Young (Aston Villa/Manchester United) and Charles N’Zogbia (Wigan Athletic/Aston Villa).
DISCLAIMER: Sorry for the extreme length of this article; I wanted to be as thorough as possible!
An Important Note on Traditional Wingers vs. Inverted Wingers
Since the early days of football, wide midfielders have plied their trades by getting crosses into the box to be headed in by strikers or finished off by trailing central midfielders. Traditionally, left-footed wingers play on the left side, and right-footers on the right side. However, in recent years, the popularity of using “inverted wingers” has risen (playing a lefty on the right side, and vice versa, to allow them to cut in onto their stronger foot to shoot). Logically, inverted wingers cross the ball with less frequency than out-and-out wingers, given that most footballers always prefer to use their stronger foot when possible. At Aston Villa, Gérard Houllier deployed Stewart Downing (a lefty) as a traditional winger on the left side.
This is evident when one notes that during 2010/11, Downing passed to his left only 4% of the time. After his transfer to Liverpool, Downing continued to play on the left side of the midfield under Kenny Dalglish in order to get crosses onto the head of record signing Andy Carroll. However, oftentimes Dalglish would have Downing switch wings mid-match. In 2011/12, Downing passed to his left 13% of the time, a large increase from the previous year at Villa. This season, however, Downing has become almost strictly an inverted winger–Brendan Rodgers has always preferred to let his wingers cut onto their stronger foot to contribute to buildup play. Rodgers’ use of wingers in his tiki-taka style also means that wingers will be on the ball much more often and be expected to recycle possession as opposed to putting a cross into the box. This should logically yield a more equal ratio of passing left vs. passing right (allowing Glen Johnson to overlap): and it does, with Downing making 27% of his passes to the left, and 24% to the right. It is important to recognize this position change when one considers how Downing has evolved as a player since his Aston Villa days.
Crossing Ability: A Winger’s Most Defining Attribute
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2010/11: At Aston Villa, Downing played on the left-wing, opposite Ashley Young, feeding the ball in to Darren Bent. The two wingers each played over 3000 minutes, with Young playing in 34 games and Downing playing in all 38. Both Downing and Young were instructed to cross the ball in quite often, reflected by Downing’s massive crossing statistics. The winger put in 324 crosses over the course of the 2010/11 season, at a rate of a cross every 10 minutes, higher than both Ashley Young and N’Zobgia. However, despite his very high crossing rate, Downing has only a 24% accuracy rate, bested by Ashley Young’s 31%. In terms of crossing, the United-bound Englishman was clearly superior to Downing during the campaign, crossing nearly as often and with a better success rate. Charles N’Zogbia has a lower percentage of 20% accurate crosses and clearly represents the low baseline of this winger study. Thus, in terms of the most defining attribute for a traditional winger (crossing ability), Downing did not exactly stand out from the pack during 2010/11, and in fact wasn’t even the best crosser in Birmingham.
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2011/12: During the summer of 2011, both Young and Downing moved on from Villa Park, with the former transferring to Manchester United, and the latter to Liverpool. During Downing’s first season at Anfield, he crossed less often than the previous year, while the opposite was true of Ashley Young. However, Downing’s cross accuracy rate stayed fairly constant, dropping only one point from 24% to 23%, while Young’s dropped drastically from 31% to 21%. N’Zogbia, who was brought to Villa Park by new manager Alex McLeish to replace the outgoing Downing and Young, crossed much less frequently than both of them at a rate of once every 15 minutes, but had the highest success rate out of all three with an accuracy percentage of 28%. It seems that although much was made of Downing’s loss of form after his move to Liverpool, his crossing ability was not affected.
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2012/13: Brendan Rodgers’ arrival at Anfield heralded a new era for the historic English club; along with the Northern Irishman came a new position for Downing (discussed earlier). As would be logical with Downing’s switch to the right side, his cross rate decreased drastically. However, this yielded an increase in cross accuracy, from 23% the previous year to 28%. This increased success rate can most likely be attributed to two things. First, during Downing’s first season with Liverpool, the winger frequently took corners (which often don’t meet the head of an attacker) from the left side.
This year, however, Downing rarely takes corners. Second, under Rodgers’ style, wing play is much slower and not as dynamic as under a counter-attacking style, and as a result Downing has time to cut back onto his left foot even though he is on the right side of the midfield. Thus, even though he is passing to feet more often when in previous years he would have crossed the ball, when he DOES cross the ball, he has more time to pick his man out in the box. Downing’s less frequent crossing rate compares similarly to Ashley Young’s rate of one cross per 14 minutes (a reflection of the righty Young’s switch to the left side of United’s midfield), but the United winger is inferior to Downing in terms of accuracy percentage.
At Villa Park, meanwhile, Charles N’Zogbia has only crossed at a rate of once per 16 minutes, completing only 20% of them, a marked regression from the previous season. It seems that despite the departure of target man Andy Carroll to West Ham, Downing’s crossing ability has actually improved since his first season at Liverpool and is actually his best since joining Aston Villa four years ago.
Creativity and Shooting: The Infamous 0 Goal, 0 Assist Season
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2010/11: Downing’s final season at Aston Villa saw him finish with 7 goals and 7 assists, with a goal created (goal or assist) every 242 minutes. Side note: Downing’s last goal in a Villa kit ironically came against Liverpool. Ashley Young finished the campaign equal on goals with 7, but with 10 assists (though 1 of them was from a set piece) with a goal created every 180 minutes, a better rate than Downing. N’Zogbia scored the most out of all three with 9 goals, and assisted 5, resulting in a goal created every 200 minutes. Despite Downing’s inferior goal creation rate, in terms of overall chances created, the three wingers are almost equal to each other.
Downing, however, was superior in terms of Clear Cut Chances created, creating a whopping 19 chances. Downing was actually joint-top in the league in CCCs created, tied with Didier Drogba and Joey Barton. However, when it came to finishing off chances, Downing was the worst out of the three. His shooting accuracy (42%) was lower than that of both Young (48%) and N’Zogbia (55%), and his very low chance conversion rate (11%) might have caused some concerns when compared with the 17% of N’Zogbia (though Ashley Young’s 10% conversion rate was probably a bit worrisome, too). Though this low conversion rate did not stop Downing from scoring 7 goals in the EPL, it was clearly his creativity, not his shooting ability that attracted Liverpool in the transfer market.
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2011/12: Downing’s successful campaign at Villa Park was followed by his worst ever season statistically. 0 goals and 0 assists do not bode well for any comparisons with Young’s 6 goals and 7 assists, or even N’Zogbia’s measly 2 goals and 4 assists. On the surface, it seems that Downing had a miserable first season at Liverpool. A look at creation statistics, though, would cause one to wonder just exactly how he didn’t score or assist at least ONE goal. Downing created a chance every 45 minutes, a rate that is not lower than his previous season’s rate of one chance every 40 minutes. By comparison, Young created a chance every 37 minutes, and N’Zogbia every 42 minutes.
Though Downing’s rate is the worst of the three, when you consider that a player like Swansea CB Ashley Williams (who created 12 chances ALL SEASON, compared to Downing’s 55) got an assist during the campaign, it seems extremely harsh on Downing that he didn’t achieve a single assist. Even more shocking is the fact that Downing created 11 Clear Cut Chances (CCCs), better than both Young and N’Zobgia, and at a better rate than both of them. In fact, Downing’s 11 CCCs is equal to the 11 of Everton LB Leighton Baines and Arsenal winger Theo Walcott, only 3 away from the 14 of Manchester City midfielder David Silva. Liverpool’s atrocious finishing of last year is to blame for the lack of assists for Downing, though the winger himself was no exception to the poor shooting on Merseyside.
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2012/13: This season has been a turnaround for Stewart Downing. Thus far, he has not quite reached his Aston Villa rate of a goal created every 242 minutes, nor does it compare to N’Zogbia’s 2012/13 rate of a goal created every 146 minutes, but clearly he has turned around since his first Liverpool campaign. This is emphasized by his 2 goals and 3 assists on the year. At the very least, it is better than Ashley Young’s rate of a goal created every 373 minutes (he’s only made 3 assist this year, scoring 0 goals). Downing has also created a chance at a far better rate (one chance per 34 minutes) than Young (47) and N’Zogbia (43), and for the third year running he has created more CCCs than both of the other two.
However, Downing’s shooting and finishing stats are still absolutely horrific. This is the area of Downing’s game that needs the most work–even though he’s not a striker, Downing often finds himself running in positions similar to a striker due to his “inverted winger” status, and often shoots on goal. If the winger is to become more than just an average Englishman, it’s time he hit the training pitch to work on finishing.
Tiki-Taka: Downing’s Adaptation to the Brendan Rodgers Style
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Brendan Rodgers brought with him to Liverpool the pass-and-move style of football that he instilled at Swansea. This change in style would imply that once players have adjusted to the new method of passing and moving, they would have a higher pass completion rate and more total passes. In 2011/12, Downing’s first year at Liverpool, the winger had an open play pass completion percentage of 85%–a respectable rate. This season, however, his completion percentage has dropped to 84%. This is a irrelevant decrease, but it is certainly relevant when one realizes that under Rodgers’ philosophy, it should logically have increased, as the number of “easy passes” that Downing has to make goes up.
In addition, Downing’s final third passing rate has decreased from 82% to 77%. This decrease cannot be attributed to an increase in crossing frequency (as discussed earlier). Thus, it seems that Downing has not totally adjusted to the new pass-and-move philosophy of Brendan Rodgers. However, the fact that Downing is creating chances at a better rate than he did in his first Liverpool season should be encouraging to his manager.
On the surface, it would seem that Stewart Downing suffered a massive drop in form from his final season at Aston Villa to his first at Liverpool. This would only be the case, however, if you only looked at goal and assist stats. His chance creation did not suffer much, nor did his crossing ability. He still compared favourably to other wingers in the league in terms of crossing accuracy as well as chances created, and in fact was light-years ahead in Clear Cut Chances created.
Downing’s shooting accuracy, however, has steadily decreased since his last season at Villa, something that Rodgers will be looking to remedy. In addition to this, Downing also must continue to adapt to the pass-heavy style of the new Liverpool. Only time will tell, however, if Downing is given the chance to adapt, as there has been talk that the Englishman will be leaving during the summer.
So is Stewart Downing a Hero or a Villain? I for one hope to see Stewart Downing in a LFC kit again next year – perhaps not as a starter, but as an impact substitute that can come on, create chances, and score/assist some goals in a time of need.
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