Stewart Downing got off to a flying start for Liverpool, coming out against Sunderland, Arsenal, and Bolton as not just one of the club's better players of the early going but potentially the long sought answer for the left side of midfield. Then, as quickly as he'd seemed to establish himself, in the eyes of many he became a question mark. All of a sudden, he might not have been worth all the money; he might not have been good enough after all.
Was it a case where, with the club at times struggling after a strong opening, people were simply looking at an attacking player who hadn't scored his first goal for his new club yet and focusing on any negatives they could find when before they would have seen positives? Or had Downing's game in fact declined after a strong start?
At Aston Villa, he had scored seven times and set up seven more during the 2010-11 season, equaling a goal every five and a half games. However, while he may have scored that often on average, it was very much an average made up of highs and lows: In Villa's first six Premier League matches last year, Downing scored three times, but after Christmas he scored just twice in the final 21 games. Manwhile, he went without a shot only three times in the league last season, and averaged 2.57 shots per match—though with only 0.68, or about two shots in three matches, reaching the target.
So far for Liverpool, Downing has gone without a shot once—against Everton in Liverpool's last match—but his overall attempts have worryingly dropped to 1.71 per game. On the other hand, he's been slightly more accurate, with 0.71 shots per match registering as on target. If his overall shots are down in the early going, then, that he's actually putting more of them on target per match than he was last season—along with the fact that he did have some fairly long stretches that saw him go without a goal then—would seem to suggest that it isn't the end of the world that he hasn't found the back of the goal as yet, and that if he continues to hit the target at something like the current rate the goals that he scored last season should begin to come sooner or later.
Certainly it would be nice to see his shot attempts pick up a touch, but the overall numbers don't suggest a player who should be doubted simply because he hadn't score by the end of the Bolton match. Though of course, with Liverpool struggling against Stoke and Tottenham before looking less than entirely convincing against Wolves and Everton, the shift from "Doesn't Downing look good on the wing?" to "He looks out of it and really needs to be doing more" might have been inevitable as fans began to search for causes of the club's dip in form. Beyond the question of goals and shots, however, there remains the issue of whether there in fact has been a measurable dip in Downing's output to justify such a shift in opinion—or if the only tangible reason that can be found in the end is a lack of end product that isn't in fact much different from his past performance, and that for those who did think his play good enough in the early going likely isn't the best measurable to judge his current performance on.
From a defensive standpoint, the numbers suggest the Downing seen so far at Liverpool isn't much different from the one who played for Aston Villa last season. He's been a bit better in the air so far, certainly, but at the same time he's been slightly worse in tackling and interceptions, while on the whole what pluses and minuses there are largely appear to even themselves out.
For most, though, the issue with Downing will never be his defensive ability, even if there will be an expectation that he put in the effort to get back and help when Liverpool loses possession. And at least on that front, that he has nearly fifty percent more aerial challenges, ground challenges, and tackles than Jordan Henderson—and that moreover his success rate in the first two categories is double Henderson's—speaks to him putting in at least a competent defensive effort to date. Both new wide players' defensive efforts pale in comparison to Dirk Kuyt's from last year, when the industrious Dutchman put in a ground challenge every six minutes, an aerial challenge every 21.53 minutes, and a tackle every 38, but if Henderson has often come in for deserved criticism for leaving his fullback exposed, there's at least little to suggest Downing has been especially poor in that respect even if he hasn't excelled.
On the other side of the ball, and contrary to growing opinion, Downing in fact appears to have had some very good numbers since the Bolton match. At least up until Everton—which also happens to have been the only match this season where he was held without a shot. For pure chance creation, his three accurate crosses on nine attempts and five chances created from open play against Wolves are hard to top even considering the relatively low passing totals, while the numbers against Stoke are very similar to those against Arsenal—except that, again, he created noticeably more chances in the more recent match.
Everton is of course a notable outlier when looking at Downing's nubers, both given the importance of the match and that Liverpool was up a man for much of it yet Downing found himself almost completely absent from the passing game while creating less in the final third than he arguably had in any other game for his new club. Still, when one considers that he's had more shots on target so far with Liverpool than he averaged for Aston Villa last year, one would expect that over the length of an entire season he could expect a similar—or even slightly improved—goal return, while his chance creation and passing statistics remain generally high, suggesting that any fault in that aspect of his game lies more with those who are failing to convert what he creates in attack than in a dip in form for Downing himself. There's also little to suggest that, leaving Tottenham out of the equation as Liverpool being down to ten men early heavily skewed all player stats, his play has dipped significantly after a strong start. In fact, Everton aside, it could be argued quite easily that based on what Damien Comolli and Kenny Dalglish brought him in to do—namely, to create chances—two of his strongest outings were in fact against Wolves and Stoke, after opinion on him had begun to sour.
Perhaps Downing hasn't scored yet, and perhaps it's understandable that when an attacking player doesn't score week in and week out some will begin to question him. Still, while stats may not tell the whole story, they can at least be valuable in helping to confirm or deny what people think they have seen in the heat of the moment. And so far at least, Downing's numbers suggest there isn't a whole lot to support the negative shift in opinion that has taken place over the past few weeks.