As Andy Carroll was finally jettisoned from Anfield, a debate rumbled on over the creative abilities of the man that was supposed to provide him with ammunition. Just as there are those who wanted Andy Carroll retained as a ‘Plan B’ weapon, Stewart Downing, too, has his apologists. But are they onto something? Is there more to Downing’s game than meets the eye? And have some of us written him off through a combination of psychological tics and biases only Downing fans are free of?
In truth, Downing was set up for a fall the moment he signed for Liverpool. Twenty million big ones is a substantial fee for any player, let alone a 27-year-old who had largely underwhelmed since breaking through the Middlesbrough academy – particularly when playing for England. Englishness generally comes at a premium, despite the general consensus that English players aren’t all that good, but Downing’s exorbitant fee was also in part due to his being awarded the lofty accolade of Aston Villa’s player of the year.
With 7 goals and 7 assists, Downing had a Minutes Per Assist rate of 242 during the 2010/2011 season, yet as impressive as that seems juxtaposed with his meagre return for Liverpool the following year, it was bettered by his teammate Ashley Young. Young had managed 7 goals and 10 assists, giving him a Minutes Per Assist rate of 180, but Downing fared better in the Clear Cut Chances column where he recorded 19 compared to Young’s 18, making him the league’s top creator of Clear Cut Chances with one created every 178.3 minutes.
But that was then.
These days Downing struggles to create Clear Cut Chances, as we can see in the comparison below where his Minutes Per Clear Cut Chance Created rate fell to one every 313.4 minutes last season – a drop of over 43% from 2010/2011.
Stewart Downing Creative Comparison with ‘Elite’ Premier League Wide Attacking Midfielders
Unsurprisingly perhaps, it is clear that Downing doesn’t really belong here and is some way off the average in each category. With all but his Minutes Per Successful Dribble ratio (129.05) ranking as the worst score – and even that only fractionally better than Juan Mata’s 130.66 – it is obvious that Premier League’s elite wide attacking midfielders are in a different league to the Liverpool man.
The most prominent statistical gulfs are in the Minutes Per Assist and Minutes Per Goal columns, where Downing is some way off the best scores. His Minutes Per Open Play Chance Created rate (44.78), however, is actually around that of both Cazorla (43.53) and Hazard (43.21), so why do the chances Downing creates result in so few goals? A clue lies in the Minutes Per Clear Cut Chance Created statistics, where we see a huge drop-off in Downing’s numbers compared to the other two. More on this later.
If Downing were creating bags of Clear Cut Chances that weren’t being converted into goals, we could perhaps point the finger at strikers failing to put away the opportunities he provides, but a failure to convert ‘half-chances’ can’t be blamed on teammates in the same way. If a player shoots from the halfway line and it goes in, it counts as an assist for the player who gave him the ball even though they didn’t really do anything to precipitate it, but if the keeper saves it, it will still be chalked down as a chance, and therefore a chance created by the player who last passed the ball. This ambiguity in the way created chances are recorded means we can’t yet get a really clear picture of the quality of chances created unless they are clear cut.
For some greater context on Downing’s creative productivity, I’ve compared him to some more players he might be expected to fare better against.
Stewart Downing Creative Comparison with Wide Attacking Midfielder Teammates
When compared with only his Liverpool teammates, Downing’s creative stats remain distinctly average. As we’ve already seen, his Minutes Per Open Play Chance Created are good (just ahead of Coutinho and Sterling), but when we look at Minutes Per Clear Cut Chance Created, Downing (313.4) trails Borini (252), Coutinho (103.6) and Enrique (282.12), despite the Spaniard playing the majority of the season at leftback.
Coutinho is nothing short of a phenomenon, registering better Minutes Per Clear Cut Chance Created and Minutes Per Assist scores than any of the ‘elite’ wide attackers previously looked at. Despite being some way off the pace in Clear Cut Chances Created, for a 17-year-old, Raheem Sterling’s numbers show promise, especially when you consider the defensive side to his game is also good.
Of course, Downing played most of the season on the right, whereas the other four are more comfortable on the left, but with deals for Aspas and Alberto all but done and Mkhitaryan and Atsu likely to follow them, the case for trimming Downing from the squad could soon be strengthened.
Stewart Downing Creative Comparison with ‘Average’ Premier League Wide Attacking Midfielders
Considering only Pienaar, Mirallas and Lennon played in teams that finished above Liverpool in the league, Downing’s stats still don’t appear to read as anything special. His Minutes Per Open Play Chances Created rate (44.78), ranks behind other wingers or wide attackers such as Steven Pienaar (38.81), Sylvain Marveaux (39.6), Pablo Hernandez (41.53) and Aaron Lennon (43.66).
In terms of Minutes Per Clear Cut Chances Created, Downing (313.4) is some way off the average (276.68), but his Minutes Per Assist rate (438.8) is slightly better than average (458.1). When it comes to Minutes Per Successful Dribbles (average 86.50) and Minutes Per Goals scored (average 607.68), however, Downing (129.05 and 731.33) is one of the very worst performers, so overall the picture is far from one of a consistently creative attacking force.
Despite coming 16th out of all the players in the league for Minutes Per Open Play Chances Created, of all the 65 chances Downing was responsible for creating last season only 7 (10.76%) of them were Clear Cut Chances. As we can see from the excellent work Dan Kennet has done in identifying from where Downing set up the chances he created and where those chances ultimately fell, only just over 45% (26 out of 57) of the chances he created since the home game with Fulham were in the 6 or 18 yard boxes where shots have the best chance of going in. The efforts on goal teed up by Downing for teammates positioned outside the 18 yard box – from where the probability of scoring is far lower – accounted for almost 37% of the total chances he created.
It is far harder to tee up a striker lurking in the 6-yard-box when a defense ‘park the bus’, because there will usually be several defenders in a compact area doing their best to stop the pass from reaching its target. It usually takes superb vision and execution to create a Clear Cut Chance against teams set out to defend and we’ve often seen Liverpool resort to speculative long shots out of frustration.
To set up the kind of chances Philippe Coutinho has made his signature in such a short space of time at Liverpool – the sort that puts a striker beyond the opposition defence with only the keeper to beat – a player needs to master the art of the through-ball.
What all this suggests is that Downing lacks the vision and/or execution to provide the really good chances, and instead tends to tee up his teammates for shots from outside the box. Downing only created 7 Clear Cut Chances all season, so of the 26 chances he laid on within the 18-yard-box, the vast majority left his teammates still with work to do.
Of course, Downing doesn’t make his teammates shoot, even if he passes the ball invitingly to them, so the question remains why so many shots are taken after a pass from him. Logic dictates that if every pass you play results in a Clear Cut Chance, you will never create any chances that are not clear cut, so perhaps Downing’s tendency to create half-chances keeps his Clear Cut Chance creation low.
Might it be a quality to resist creating half-chances, instead holding on for the opportunity to create one that will be hard to miss? It could be that Downing is as risk averse in his passing as some feel he is in his dribbling, or that the passes he attempts which would result in a quality chance if completed just don’t often come off.
If Luis Suarez does leave this summer and we line up next season with Sturridge ahead of Coutinho and the inbound Mkhitaryan, there will be just one more predominantly attacking role left to be occupied. If it isn’t to be Downing, can we afford to have him on the bench earning £70,000 per week when he turns 29 next month?
As much as some fans may have failed to acknowledge the improvement Downing eventually showed last season, there are others more forgiving who may not be quite as objective in their assessments as they would like to think. The heart may want to hold on to a player who has fought back from obscurity to win his manager’s trust, but the head must weigh up what he offers against younger, cheaper and possibly more productive alternatives who still have time to improve.
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