He's not wavering, he's Downing
Feature by Toby Podmore
Updated Friday, 26th October 2012
How Stewart fills our hole at the back...
The wave of plaudits that flowed Jose Enrique's way after his first couple of months failed to take into account that, fundamentally, he wasn't that good. When faced with an opponent or – God forbid – the opposing 18-yard-box, Enrique would do one of three things; freeze, pass the ball back, or blaze wildly into the stands. While defensively solid for the most part, he was still shown as being woefully positionally unaware at crucial moments, notably such as Ramires' goal for Chelsea in the FA cup final. When Glen Johnson proved to be an able understudy in his position, he suffered the ignominy of being left out in favour of the erstwhile centre-back, Martin Kelly. All these circumstances had arrived before Brendan Rodgers, when an old-fashioned left-back was still on the cards. Unfortunately for Enrique, times have changed.
While the young Jack Robinson is a name on many people's lips, and deservedly so, it is a bit much to ask a 19-year-old to take up a position as important as left-back. There are some who point to Sterling's or Suso's performances at the head of the team, but they are under less pressure. If they lose the ball, it can be won back in midfield. If the left-back is to lose the ball, then Robinson need look no further than his teammate Jon Flanagan for an example. One ball lost, one goalkeeper sent off, no first team appearances since. As for Daniel Agger at left-back, it would be madness to break up a central defence partnership which is just finding its feet.
The first myth to dispel when considering Downing as part of the back four in a 4-3-3 is the idea that the back four remain static throughout the play. In actual fact, under the Rodgers system, the wing-backs form an advanced role ahead of the defensive midfielder. Therein lies the simplicity of adapting Stewart Downing to this role; should Liverpool be caught in possession, it is just a question of the the deep-lying midfielder dropping into the centre whilst the more mobile of the two centre backs (in this case, Agger) shifts over to the traditional left-back position. In any eventuality, it is hard to imagine Downing being beaten for pace while tracking back. That is, in fact, another strength of his; Liverpool's number 19 has enough pace and experience as a winger to know what his opponents are going to try before they try it. Even if their tricks succeed, there could be a crucial foot on the ball before any advantage is gained. Not least, Downing has already played this position for Middlesborough, on their unlikely quest for the UEFA cup in 2005. Furthermore, there is none of the expectation to beat a man that has plagued the confidence-depleted Downing last year to hinder his overall game – at least not with on very solid Dane between him and the goal.
At this moment, depending on your point of view, Liverpool have a criminally overrated winger or two of the best wing-backs in the country. Nobody has questioned Downing's commitment, his positioning, or even his defensive acumen - even in the times when he has been under pressure to defend well. The same could not be said of Glen Johnson, whose defensive credentials have been the subject of much criticism before. Yet as Johnson develops his all-round game, is it too far to expect Downing to do the same? It is early days in his career as a defensive stalwart, but for Liverpool's very own Matt Bellamy lookalike, does he have much of an option?