With Charlie Adam signed, Liverpool’s next high profile target is Stewart Downing. The England winger has made no secret of his desire to leave Aston Villa this summer and is expected to force a transfer by handing in a transfer request if Liverpool’s advances continue to be knocked back. The proposed transfer has been met online by a group of whingeing Liverpool fans, many crying ’sign Mata, sign Mata’ or alternately stating that Downing is average at best, or simply not good enough. Such comments display the naïveté of some fans in terms of how they perceive the modern game.
What seems to escape the attention of these fans is that in January of this year Liverpool paid a club record £35m to sign Andy Carroll. Call me crazy but I believe this would suggest that Andy is seen as a key first team player for next season. One only need look at Liverpool’s last two games of last season, when Carroll, despite clearly not being fit, was chosen to play alongside Suarez as a striker ahead of the in-form Dirk Kuyt. Carroll is seen as first choice. As such Dalglish will be looking to construct a side to get the best from his £35m man.
To think that Kenny Dalglish gave the go-ahead on signing Carroll for £35m without realising that he needs good service borders on insulting the King’s knowledge of the game. We all know Andy’s main strengths, he has great physical presence and colossal heading ability. He gets less praise for his ability to pick a pass and he also has a decent touch, impressive attributes for such a big man. Carroll also has a ferocious shot, it is clear to see why, in this department, parallels with Alan Shearer have been drawn.
Carroll however, also has weaknesses. He could do with working on his ball retention and hold-up play, as he is often clumsy or wasteful when playing a simple pass. Also, for a man who to look at, appears at a glance to be something of a beast – Carroll could also improve on his strength.
Upon his signing I had noticed in his medical photos that his upper-body could do with a lot of work, he did not cut the figure of a toned, conditioned and muscular modern pro, but then he did have a reputation. Carroll is also not the quickest, which diminishes our ability to thread through-balls to Carroll as a viable, steady supply-source of goal-scoring chances.
This is precisely the problem in the debate over Mata that so many fans seem to miss. Liverpool need someone who can deliver a cross. This is not Mata’s style. He is a great little player but a gamble in terms of getting the best from Carroll. Mata is a typical Spanish schemer, playing in a floating role on the left, looking to playing quick one-twos, or to pick an incisive through ball. Mata plays most of his football in a more central area of the pitch, drifting in on the left side of a front three. The same people who clamour for Mata would also likely state that Liverpool need width. Mata would simply not provide the desired width we need.
Whilst the thought of Mata and Suarez linking up on the left, playing intricate, incisive football on the deck is great in theory, such a system would not suit big Andy, who thrives on good crosses (or indeed even average ones. Man City anyone?). Make no mistake – next season we will be looking to get crosses to him. Whilst Mata does not provide traditional, touchline-hugging, by-line-driving width, Downing certainly does.
It is the width offered by Stewart Downing which puts him ahead of Mata as a priority signing for Liverpool. The left-footer whipped in more crosses in open play than any player in the Premier League last season, 135 in total. According to Opta stats, this is more than any other player has accumulated in a season in the last three campaigns. Very impressive. We are all aware too that Downing is not overly elaborate and could hardly be described as a ‘flair’ player, but then the same can be said for the likes of Antonio Valencia at Man Utd, who was widely praised for his simplicity on the ball at the tail end of last season (rightly so in my opinion, he rarely loses the ball).
Downing is not a ‘one-trick pony’ as many lazily suggest – some, with dreams of comedy superstardom have described him as a ‘no-trick pony’. Again, this is lazy – if not just downright idiotic. As we can see, Downing’s main ‘trick’ is offering width and providing crosses, but he is also capable of scoring goals as well as creating them (as we found out to our detriment) – eight in total last season. Downing can also pick a pass as well as deliver crosses. Strikers with pace, such as Gabriel Agbonlahor, and more recently Darren Bent have both benefited from Downing’s ability to split a defence over the last few years. Were it not for Bent’s famed profligacy in front of goal, and inability to stay onside, Downing may have claimed many more than the nine assists he contributed last season.