Stewart Downing has received a lot of flak over the last season. No goals or assists in the league after a relatively big money move last season meant that he was a popular target for easy jokes and ridicule not only from the opposition fans but many a Kop faithful as well.
Naturally, the summer’s brought along a whole host of transfer rumours and some of them have linked the Reds with a number of wingers including Arsenal’s Theo Walcott and Man City’s Adam Johnson. This article is not concerned with the veracity of those stories or the likelihood of any such transfers but the debate sparked by such speculation is always interesting and my idea is to throw some stats into the fray to add to the discussions.
In the following analysis I’ll look at the three wide men and have included Ryan Giggs as a reference point of sorts. As is the case with most stat based articles, the idea is not to provide a conclusive opinion on which player is better but to add a degree of objectivity to the debates.
To begin with let’s look at some numbers for chance creation and assists.
In 2477 minutes of Premier League football Downing has 0 assists. Zilch, Nada! Clearly, something’s not right. But take a closer look and you’ll see how it’s somewhat unfair to make fun of the former Villa man for a lack of decisive tangible contributions.
“An assist is a two-way relationship – the first part is for a chance to be created and the second for it to be finished by the player the chance was created for.” Via @AnfieldIndex
The Liverpool winger created 11 clear-cut chances last season. That’s the same as Theo Walcott who’s played more minutes but created fewer chances in total and yet ended the season with 8 assists.
Liverpool’s finishing was simply awful last season and that has contributed to Downing’s woes, at least as far as the assists column goes. Johnson has better numbers when it comes to the frequency of chance creation and that’s something we’ll revisit later. Giggs has an astonishing frequency of creating clear-cut chances and has the best min/assist ratio by far even at the fag-end of his glittering career which kind of reinforces the fact that he’s a class above.
Looking at the passing related stats for these players provides further interesting numbers.
Min/Pass tells us which player saw a lot of the ball. Again Giggs leads the pack but that’s partly explained by the fact that he spent a lot of time down the middle instead of the wings. Downing and Johnson are comparable but Walcott is a way behind. This is understandable as Theo is more of a runner who looks to get in behind and not a player who’ll come to the ball and link play.
Johnson has the best passing accuracy but the Liverpool man isn’t far behind. Surprisingly, Giggs is noticeably lagging and is closer to the Arsenal man than he is to the other two. Crossing accuracy is similar except for Walcott who is famous for having an inconsistent radar from the right. The United veteran stands out with his through-ball accuracy.
Two very interesting numbers in that chart are the frequencies for crossing and through-balls. Downing crossed the ball more often than anyone else whereas he rarely attempted a through-ball, a category where Johnson was the clear leader.
You might want to think about how much of this was down to the individual players’ skill sets and how much of it was down to their manager’s tactics. And on a related note, did the style of play affect the player’s efficiency? For instance, Mancini usually used Johnson as an inverted winger and thus the chances of him running down the right flank and successfully crossing the ball were low whereas it would be relatively easier for him to cut inside and slide balls through. On the other hand Downing consistently put balls in from the left but would get fewer chances to cut inside and play through-balls.
When the passing and crossing accuracy’s are comparable as is the frequency of passing, it’s difficult to separate the technical level of players. In that regard Downing and Johnson seem very similar so let’s look at some other possession related stats.
At the end I’ve divided total touches by the sum of various ways the player has lost possession to arrive at the frequency of losing the ball. It seems indicative of a player’s technical abilities. Walcott loses the ball at an alarming frequency but that’s not a surprise. The real eyebrow raising figure there is the gap between Downing and Johnson/Giggs.
You have to say the Liverpool man has a secure touch and is able to hold on to the ball in a respectable manner. The City winger was certainly more wasteful in possession. On a side note, I got a feeling that Giggs was dispossessed quite often this season due to slowing reflexes and agility. He must’ve been a lot better in his heyday, no?
Finally, it’s important to look at the goals scored by each player and their shooting efficiency.
Walcott scored the most goals but Johnson had the best frequency of scoring as he scored a goal in just over two full games, which would be an acceptable number even for some strikers. Downing once again didn’t have anything to show for his efforts.
It’s also worth noting that having played a relatively comparable number of minutes, the Arsenal winger got on the end of 15 clear-cut chances (converting 6) while Downing only saw 3 such opportunities come his way. Once again one could question whether this had something to do with the way their respective managers used these players. Of course, Theo does have the gift of blistering pace which tends to make it easier for him to get into such positions but is it simply a question of speed?
In summary, if we look back at all the numbers and the related discussion, it’s difficult to say either Walcott or Johnson is an obvious improvement over Downing.
Walcott is effective and does provide goals and assists but he is also very wasteful in possession and can be quite frustrating. He has his share of critics, and that’s a pretty big bunch, who don’t think the Arsenal man does enough on the pitch.
Johnson is statistically better than Downing in many ways. But we have to ask how much of that was down to the quality of the team he was playing in? Some might also say that Johnson benefitted from coming on as a substitute in many games when his side was comfortably in the lead and that allowed him to thrive against opponents chasing the game. Cutting in from the right also provided better shooting angles for his favoured right foot. The key point here could also be Johnson’s failure to establish himself as a first-choice starter. When given the opportunity from kick-off the former Middlesbrough man wasn’t able to grab it as you’d expect from a top class player.
…it’s difficult to definitively say either Walcott or Johnson will be an obvious improvement over Downing.
As a result, it’s difficult to definitively say either Walcott or Johnson will be an obvious improvement over Downing. Much will depend on the way Brendan Rodgers uses his winger. He could get good value from Downing in an aggressive system that utilises his technical qualities. Putting him on the right might also provide the player with better scoring and creative opportunities. Then again, without a serious bump in their chance conversion stats Liverpool are going to struggle no matter who they play.
I’d say Rodgers has a problem and an opportunity in front of him. What he makes of it is a matter of excitement and intrigue in the build up to the season.