It was not to be a merry Hodgsmas for Liverpool on Sunday. The game followed the same formula that has been repeated ad nauseum all season: Liverpool dominated the game, but failed to finish off their chances. The performance itself was better than most – there was still a fair amount missing from Liverpool’s movement, but the passing was slick and the rare inclusions of Maxi Rodriguez and Dirk Kuyt gave them an intelligence too often missing from their play this season, although not for the full 90 minutes of course.
Kuyt made way for Craig Bellamy on the 68 minute mark and Stewart Downing came on for Maxi five minutes later. The neat triangles out wide that had allowed Liverpool to probe West Brom were now replaced by the full-backs striding forward to find few options inside and the wingers blocking the path along the touchline. The ball would be passed on to the winger, who would try to outpace the full-back and knock the ball off them for a corner, which would, true to Liverpool’s history, inevitably come to nothing.
I have made no secret of my feelings on Downing, now or when he was signed (although, having said that, I did expect him to be better than he has been), but Bellamy was equally as ineffective on Sunday. The issue is not simply that Downing isn’t particularly good, it is the type of player he is that simply isn’t, and wasn’t, needed.
The idea that Liverpool were in desperate need of a winger has been around for years before Downing was signed this summer, but it is somewhat self-perpetuating. As the years of Liverpool not reaching their maximum potential went by, the lack of a winger was an easy thing to point towards, especially in a country like England where the winger is fetishised. It is an oversimplication to simply point to English fondness for wingers, as Liverpool had been in need of width for quite some time, but it was the English predilection for wingers that meant a player like Downing was seen as the only answer.
How many top teams play with proper wingers? There’s Antonio Valencia at Man United, but United are a team who have traditionally had a thing for wingers, and even he has found himself deployed at full-back a number of times this season, while his teammates on the opposite flank have been near exclusively right-footed – hardly orthodox wingers. Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon at Tottenham came pretty close, yet an injury to the latter and some positional shifting of the former has broken up that strategy. Among the best, the width tends to be provided by the full-backs.
Often we associate width with the Downing-style beat the full-back and whip in a cross style, yet its real benefit is in stretching play, and for that I would argue width is better coming from a full-back. Using a winger, you have the quickest way of stretching play: a player out wide high up the pitch, who simply needs the ball played to him to stretch play. However, always stationed there, the winger becomes much easier to track and thus defend against. The United and Spurs sides I used as examples were able to use wingers because they wished to play with a quick, often counter-attacking style – Sir Alex Ferguson split his front four from the rest of his side and had them interchange quickly, so being able to stretch the opposition quickly on a breakaway was important for them, while Harry Redknapp’s team would look to hit the wingers quickly, using their athletic abilities to drive the ball forward – the key being the wingers’ willingness to go past players. Despite the relative success of the sides, it is worth noting that both teams have since switched to a more patient style, one which is needed to break down an ultra-defensive team like West Brom who rarely throw enough men forward to counter against.
A full-back providing width is more difficult to defend against as it requires much quicker adjustments to the defensive structure. Assuming the player ahead of the full-back moves inside, he narrows the opposition defence in a way the winger does not, but a ball out wide to the full-back, arriving late from deep so that no one can pick him up, requires that narrow defence to separate quickly – perhaps leaving more exploitable gaps. This potentially wins the full-back more time with the ball than the winger would have and also gives the attacking team another man in attack – Maxi’s ability to arrive at the posts has been sorely missed with Downing standing out wide in his place, particularly given Liverpool’s problems scoring goals.
Having got progressively worse as the season has gone on, there are question marks over Jose Enrique’s suitability for Liverpool, but there is little doubt he is at least a decent attacker. He has rarely had the opportunity to show it though, as having Downing ahead of him blocks off the space he has to move into.
Something that seemed to have been forgotten prior to Downing’s signing was that Liverpool had experimented with wingers before, to little success. Back in 2006, Rafael Benitez brought in Mark Gonzalez and Jermaine Pennant to play on the flanks, but it left Liverpool’s play stunted. Having not had that wide presence for years, Liverpool looked to knock it out to them far too often and failed to give them much in the way of support, leaving them to hit a cross into the middle every time they got the ball. Realising their presence was disrupting Liverpool’s passing, Benitez dropped the idea of wingers – unfortunate for Pennant who did a better job than often given credit for at Liverpool, but nevertheless a necessary move.
Two years later, Albert Riera arrived from Espanyol. Far too often labelled a flop, it was only his questionable actions off the pitch that spoilt his time on Merseyside. Although lacking the pace of Downing, Riera was able to go round the outside of the full-back and drill in a cross like the Englishman. What made him a success however, was that he could also play as an inside forward, just as happy to go between the full-back and centre-back as to hit the byline and go around the full-back. It was this unpredictability that meant opposition defenders couldn’t just close him down and prepare for a cross as they do with Downing, meaning he was able to fit in with Liverpool’s play while giving them something extra.
Downing may be more of a mind-numbingly boring schoolboy than the “Stanley Devastating” player Barney Ronay painted him as, but it isn’t exactly his fault that he is a player Liverpool ultimately did not need. As so many of our conclusions on this site have come down to in regard to Liverpool this season, where they could have been developing the intelligent pass-and-move style seen at the end of last season, they have resorted to a mismatch of stupid players too often playing a stupid style.