STEWART DOWNING : New Lease of life

Stewart Downing was dealt a big blow at the start of the season. He had been told he was not in the teams plans and that he could look for another club.

Birmingham City took an interest but Downing wouldn’t take a cut in pay and ended up training with the U23’s.

Fast forward to today and Downing is a key player in the team – he has put in the most crosses per game (1.6) for Boro this season so far at an impressive 26% success rate, has created the most chances per game for the club and looking at our own Boroform ratings over the last seven matches (over 70% being a positive impact) he has scored…

71%, 71%, 74%, 71%, 76%, 80%, 76%

– which is an impressive run of form, making him one of the most consistent players in the squad.

Football is driven by results and it is very difficult to overlook the goals and assists numbers when assessing a team or player.

Attacking players are generally only classed as successful when directly involved in goals, but the focus on simply goals and assists can leave a player trailing in its wake; often through no fault of his own. The view of many Boro fans is that although Stewart Downing creates a lot of chances they are not generally good quality ones (?).

Assists are an unusual stat, in the fact that after the chance is created the passer cannot do anything about it but hope the shooter scores. He cannot influence the shot, but his reputation depends on how it is finished. It seems a little unfair but this is the life of players like Stewart Downing.

Given Middlesbrough’s poor conversion rates as a team in recent seasons its perhaps understandable that fans see the value of a Stewart Downing Key Pass as being less likely to result in a goal than the average chance created by other attacking Midfielders, the assumption being that most of his key passes are crosses that end up as headed chances which are less likely to result in a goal than a shot from a similar location.

Fans need to see goals being scored to seem to be able to appreciate the chances that a player has created, but as stated earlier, Downing has no control over wether the key pass he has made results in a goal. The chances he creates are no less valuable than any other player – on the contrary, a lot are much better than most.

The issue here is, people expected Stewy to come in as our Number 10 after his transfer from West Ham, where he had his best ever top flight season, however the formation was different there with Downing playing at the point of a diamond in a 4-3-1-2.

One could wonder how much English players like John Barnes and Chris Waddle were maybe held back, especially at international level, where they were pigeon-holed as wingers, and instructed to stick to the flanks?

Waddle, found a new lease of life, playing in the number 10 role at Marseille, and has been ranting away about the inflexibility of British football, and British managers, ever since.

This season Downing has been operating mainly on the right wing, something he has been working on season by season after being told to just use his right foot for periods in training,  forcing him to improve his weaker side.

If players rely on using their favoured foot, it’s easier for the defender to mark them – opposition players can shut the line off and show them inside, where they run into more bodies. Its harder to stop a player when they can shift the ball both ways and use either foot.

Age can catch up with players and they need to adapt with each passing season. Fans all remember the pacy winger whipping balls into the box but Stewy has had to change his game and is now starting to reap the rewards.

Another area of his game Downing had been looking to improve was the variety of balls being played into the box, rather than just crossing all the time, he was looking for different ways to play the ball into the area depending on the strike partner.

Playing with an aerial striker, Stewy will still cross to an area he feels the player is going to attack, but now, if playing with a finisher, he will try to find his feet more than in the past. If you put the ball in the right areas and no one gets on the end of it, then it should be the strikers who hold their hands up and say, ‘I wasn’t there’.

Downing has stopped trying to whip in every cross, he keeps his balance more, gets his body around the ball and makes better contact. If a player is off-balance they are not going to put in a decent cross.

At 33 your pace is not what it was, we need to accept that players are going to lose the ball in the final third sometimes. Through balls will get cut out, but it only takes one to get through to set up a goal. Defenders will target the strikers and try to block them, Downing now looks for gaps and space around them, working relentlessy on his timing.

It’s all about making the right decisions in the right areas. Players can take more risks in the final third – but not near their own goal. If you lose the ball further up the field, the opposition still have to travel 60-70 yards before they can harm you.

Having said all that, there is one thing that we should be sure of. His return of goals and assists since returning to Middlesbrough is definitely not down to the poor quality of his chances, but attributable to some bad luck, poor finishing of others and some excellent opposition goalkeeping performances.

Unfortunately for Stewart Downing, it doesn’t take much to earn a reputation; deserved or otherwise.

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