Michael Owen: Return of the Prodigal Son?

Posted by Paul Tomkins on August 1, 2005, 10:01:28 AM

The arrival of two new Brazilian strikers has certainly cast doubt on Michael Owen's future at Real Madrid. His days in Spain are almost certainly numbered. So where next? Liverpool have first option, but is Rafa inclined to act upon it?

I am sure Rafa rates him highly –– everyone in the game does. But that's different to feeling he needs him. He has other problems to contend with.

Would Owen choose to go to Manchester United, as widely speculated, given they already have established first choice strikers in Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney? I'd hate to see Owen at United, but I wouldn't blame him for going there, unless he also had the option to return to Anfield –– in which case the act of snubbing Liverpool would naturally smart.

A return to Liverpool would be the 'easy' option. But if Rafa isn't prepared to make a move, then it would make sense for Owen to join the best club which does show an interest; United have the added attraction of being close to his roots in Chester.

We need to be realistic: he's not going to come back and play for Newcastle if he has the chance to join United. I'm sure he doesn't want to upset the feelings of Liverpool supporters, but he's not going to torpedo his own career to stop us feeling miffed, and I for one wouldn't expect him to.

Owen took a chance by going to Real Madrid, and it hasn't worked out, through no real fault of his own; his impressive record shows that he didn't fail, merely that he didn't get a full chance to impress.

While he will have been envious when watching the Reds lift the European Cup, it highlights his class as an individual that he still outscored all Liverpool's strikers, despite playing on the right on occasions, and being stuck on the bench for most of the season. He will have learned a lot from the experience, both as a person and as a player. Training and playing with such great players will have helped his technique, and from Ronaldo he'd have learned that if you eat too many pies your shorts will no longer fit.

I don't see it as a problem to have to sell Owen for £8m in 2004 and buy him back a year later for £12m; ultimately, if Rafa feels Owen can add £12m of value to the team and has the funds, he'll take the plunge, especially as you still find it hard to get a player of Owen's calibre for such a meagre fee.

Owen was free to Liverpool in the first place, so the club could re-sign him for £12m, get another six years out of him, and for an overall net transfer fee of £4m the club would have a total of 13 years of service. Would that be financially reckless? Hardly. I still think £12m for Owen is a steal.


Does Michael Owen fit into Benítez' system? We cannot expect Rafa to sign a player, however good, if he does not provide what the team is looking for. Nor can we expect him to sign a player merely to stop that player joining a rival.

Let's get one thing clear: while never predictable enough to stick rigidly to one formation, Benítez' preferred system is one striker, supported by three attacking players (nominally midfielders, but possibly strikers shifted wide or deep). As with Milan Baros, Owen doesn't necessarily suit that system –– at least in terms of being the lone striker.

But unlike Baros, Owen offers an extra element of class: more proven, more reliable. Perhaps as his manager you'd make more effort to find him a role? Owen is English, used to both the club and the Premiership, and has a special understanding on the pitch with Steven Gerrard and a close bond with Jamie Carragher. These are all additional plus points that you just can't find anywhere else.

Enough strikers?

Rafa has said that he's now looking for a centre-back and a right winger. He's spent a fair amount of money, and both of these positions need a solution that may not prove cheap. Rafa may want Owen; but he may also feel that he doesn't need him.

Would making a move for Owen be like paying to have plastic surgery when in more urgent need of a heart bypass and a hip replacement?

Judged purely as individuals, Owen is a superior player than Crouch in terms of reputation and career statistics. But Crouch is a better 'fulcrum', and that was Rafa's first priority: a player to bring others into the game.

However, if you're looking for players to feed off of Crouch, there can be few better options than Owen. The two have played one senior professional game together; Owen scored a hat-trick. The arrival of Crouch ahead of Owen was seen as an either/or situation by many fans. But in a funny way, Crouch's arrival makes a move for Owen all the more logical.

With Baros almost certain to bid the club farewell, it will leave only three fully established strikers (plus three understudies in Pongolle, Le Tallec and Mellor); and top clubs tend to prefer four, sometimes even five main men in the squad. (Having said that, with many teams frequently playing only one up front, having more than three strikers in the squad seems less crucial.)

I expected there to be a lot of takers for Baros; so far there's just Schalke 04 and Aston Villa –– hardly inspiring, and neither is prepared to offer more than £6m. Why? Do other managers share Benítez' doubts? It certainly appears so.

Loaning Baros to Schalke 04 would be pointless, as in a year's time he'll be just 12 months from a Bosman, so his value will drop markedly. You could save £3m in wages in that time, but lose £4m in transfer value.


Last year Rafa played 4-4-2 on quite a few occasions, but it didn't tend to work too well. When Baros and Cissé led the line together, neither was able or inclined to hold up the ball, with both looking to play on the shoulder of the last defender.

The arrival of Morientes offered a nice alternative, with his inclination to drop deep and link play, but he wasn't sharp enough and struggled to adapt, and that –– coupled with Baros' poor form in front of goal after December –– meant the formation may not have been to blame, merely the failure of individuals.

Occasionally two out-and-out goalscorers will work as a pairing, but it's rare. Sometimes you think quality will prevail –– stick two top strikers side-by-side and it will take care of itself –– but even Rush and Aldridge couldn't pull it off, and nor could Owen and Fowler.

The times when 4-4-2 is most successful is when you have two contrasting, complimentary styles: the target man alongside the nippy trickster, or the poacher alongside the feeder.

Toshack and Keegan were the perfect example of the former, and, for a season, Heskey and Owen looked equally devastating. It's easy to see Owen and Crouch working together, especially as Crouch's flicks and headers are more thoughtful and controlled than Heskey's. But maybe Rafa already has such an option, in Crouch and Cissé –– and the early evidence was very promising in Lithuania.

But it's the unison of a quick goalscorer/poacher being fed from deep which seems most effective. Dalglish and Rush; Beardsley with Aldridge, Lineker and Andy Cole; Sheringham with Shearer and Cole; and Bergkamp with Wright, Anelka and Henry. These are all examples of a deep-lying creator supplying a 20-40 goal a season man.

It also helps if the creator can score goals, too; and maybe Morientes can fill this role, in the way he did for Monaco. In their brief appearances together at Real Madrid, Owen and Morientes linked very effectively, and you could see them doing the same in the Red of Liverpool.

So Crouch gives the manager the option to play a classic 4-4-2, with a nippy finisher  (Cissé, Pongolle, Baros if he stays, or maybe Owen?) pushed up alongside and running off of him, but the new boy also offers the chance to play 4-2-3-1, where you have three deeper or wider attacking players joining the fray.

While both systems would see Crouch winning flick-ons, the latter requires more holding-up play, to allow Gerrard, Garcia, Zenden, Kewell, Riise, et al, to arrive. It's the system with which Chelsea won the league. (On the occasions Mourinho opted for two strikers, Gudjohnsen played in the hole, behind Drogba.)

My hunch is that if we see Owen back at Anfield next season it will be just once, as a visiting player. But I'd love to see him back in the red of Liverpool on a full-time basis. No one guarantees 20 goals in all competitions, but Owen comes pretty damn close. And with more creative players now at the club, you could surmise that he'd fill his boots to the brim.

©Paul Tomkins, 2005

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