Michael Owen: God MKII, or False God?

Posted by Paul Tomkins on June 15, 2004, 11:18:06 AM

Michael Owen gets written off almost daily; sometimes, twice daily. I tend to set my watch by it. People wonder if he's no longer the player he was at 18, and after one service-starved game for England, ITV's Des Lynam (admittedly not a heavyweight thinker on the game) last night said that he wished Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovich was English and thus able to partner Wayne Rooney up front. Of course, this came after Owen's "disappointing" season with Liverpool - how other strikers would love such poor campaigns.

Thierry Henry's arrival in England has had something to do with seeing Owen in a lesser light, but comparisons are rather disingenuous. Henry is a better footballer than Owen can ever hope to be (or any other striker in the world can, for that matter) - Henry is three players rolled into one; but both men are great finishers with different styles - and Owen has arguably had far inferior service for his goals; inarguably, Owen has been in the inferior side (Liverpool never having finished above Arsenal in Owen's career). Michael has had more injury problems, and fewer creative players feeding him chances. Owen doesn't have Henry's physical gifts: Henry's much longer legs are stronger over greater distances; for every two strides Owen takes, Henry only needs one-and-a-half. Thierry can afford to glide past players, whereas Michael has to pump his legs like crazy to generate his pace.

Despite all this, only one of these men has won the European Footballer of the Year (although if Henry doesn't get it this year, you have to wonder what's going on).

I firmly believe that Owen is a far better player now than when he was 18; understandable as some of the doubts may be (after all, he doesn't appear as 'dynamic'), I think people are having 'selective' memory, recalling the wonderful highlights and forgetting the short-comings. He hasn't got quite the same pace, due to the specific hamstring-and-back strengthening exercises he has to do, and he hasn't scored really spectacular goals recently; he's altered his game slightly, but it's different, not worse (plus he's added heading - far better technique than Heskey, for example, although not quite up to Henrik Larsson, who is the best diminutive header of the ball - and goals from his left foot). He links play better, but it will never be his strong suit, and nor should we expect it to be. He uses his brain more, and poaches goals.

The standard of the game in England has improved since 1997; so many top-class pacey defenders have been imported to replace the plodding old-style English centre halves. I was at Selhurst Park for both his debut and then the first game of 1997/98, each time against Wimbledon; in that latter game, he ran quickly but in his eagerness to just blow defenders away with his pace he miscontrolled the ball and over-ran it time and time again. He was a one-trick pony, but once in position he had a natural eye for goal; when it worked, what a trick! But too frequently in his early days super-slow old centre backs, like Steve Bould and Dave Watson, used to step off him waiting for his control to let him down, and then simply walk away with the ball. Owen's left foot was awful, and he never won headers. What he had on his side was the fearlessness of youth - in the way Wayne Rooney doesn't have to worry about anyone but himself for England (although of course, at Everton he's the only player who can control a football, and reports seemed to suggest that has been poor more frequently than good for his club). Nowadays, Owen carries the burden of both his team and his country.

Yes, he had stinkers last season, but then so will all strikers (I can recall a few last season from Shearer and Van Nistelrooy, and even games where Henry couldn't hit a barn door; Fowler in his pomp was no different). Owen has had them his entire career; he is human, after all. It's just that lately, with Liverpool misfiring on too many cylinders, and no other striker scoring goals, his bad games seemed to cost us dear. Yes, he should stop with the penalties; they generate a lot of the negative press that surrounds him and affect his confidence, but I understand why he takes them: he wants goals, and goals improve his confidence. It just tended to work the wrong way last season. His greatest strength, however, is that he continues to put himself in the firing line; if he misses five chances in a game, he'll still look to score with number six. He doesn't hide.

Let me remind you of a day in history: 10th January 2001. The location: back at Selhurst Park, this time to face Crystal Palace in the semi-final of the League Cup. Owen has the mother of all stinkers. He misses something like ten good opportunities, and Clinton Morrison (yes, that man who has since scaled the heights) laughs at Michael's expense, saying he'd have put a few of those chances away. In the return, Owen sits on the bench, smiling ruefully as Morrison - suddenly in the spotlight and under pressure - miskicks twice in front of the Kop.

A month later, I was fortunate enough to be in Italy to see Michael score twice against Roma. By September of that year, Liverpool had won three trophies and two showpiece finals. Owen scored both in the FA Cup final, again in the Charity Shield and European Super Cup, and was about to score in the Uefa Cup final when the Alaves keeper cynically tripped him. He went on to score a hat-trick in Germany for England, and was European Footballer of the Year before the year was over.

When off-form Owen seems to miss a lot of chances to score his goals (a symptom of any striker off-colour), but add together his chances in Rome, in Cardiff, and in Munich, and it equals seven opportunities, seven goals. That sums him up: when on-form, no one scores more from fewer chances. Meanwhile, it was Henry missing countless chances in the FA Cup Final. Michael's strength is mental toughness. He doesn't want to score great goals, he just wants to score any goal; he'd prefer nine scrappy tap-ins to eight wonder strikes. It's only better when the stage is bigger. Only then do the goals tend to count double, and he loses himself in his celebrations. Providing the team wins, of course.

These days the opposition set out to stop Michael Owen. Witness how deep the French - the best side in the world, in my opinion - sat the other night; and this was with Thuram, Gallas and Silvestre: three of the quickest defenders around (two of whom are excellent, the other merely has a very big head). They could have afforded to defend much higher up, but were scared to.

As a result, Rooney, who deservedly took the plaudits for his skill on the ball around the halfway line, had all the space behind to play in - as France didn't want to leave just one defender marking Owen. Did Rooney do anything in and around the French box? - aside from winning the penalty late on, when France had thrown caution to the wind and left only one man back (the comically inept Silvestre) - Rooney didn't get anywhere near their goal. As Rooney was playing in the hole, Mickey couldn't drop deep to get involved in the game - otherwise England would have been playing no-one up front. Michael's job the other night was to play on the shoulder of the last man - and was never going to stand any chance of rich rewards without service. When Cisse arrives at Liverpool, he will be more ideally suited to the figurehead striking role, as he is bigger and stronger (and quicker). Owen will play off of him - not in the hole, but just behind, or just to the side. He will buzz about and time his runs into the box to arrive unmarked, or look to capitalise on any last-ditch tackles on the marauding Frenchman. Someone up-front alongside him who needs two men marking him will allow Michael more freedom. The success of this partnership will hopefully lead Michael to further extending his contract. The good times will surely arrive (although that doesn't mean guaranteed titles and trophies).

Anyone who thinks he is not the player he was should look at his record. Owen's goal tally has gone from 23, 23 (then the hamstring injury-hit season), then 24, 28 and 28. This season it was 19, but he was only two goals short, with 17, of his best league total, despite missing a quarter of the league campaign and playing in a team lacking direction and nowhere near as good as the top sides (who were an embarrassing 15-30 points ahead); and also a side that didn't progress in any of the cups (and these days he doesn't line up against the poor sides in the League Cup, where he would score hat-tricks in his early years).

The Liverpool side during recent seasons has played to some of his strengths (long quick passes) but also failed to deliver a variety of chances - no one gets to the byline to pull the ball back, for example, and there have been too few hard-and-low crosses from either flank. The style of play became increasingly predictable, making it easier to stop him. Yet still he scored at the same impressive ratio. And still he more-often-than-not scores in the big games - he has his entire career. It is a mark of his quality. He will never be the best striker in the world; but he will always be in and around the top ten.

He wants to stay at Liverpool, but understandably he wants to be playing in a top side; like Steven Gerrard, I believe he will continue to love representing Liverpool providing the team has ambition and direction. All the very best players have that desire and ambition - it's what marks them out from those who merely want to pick up their wages. Whereas Emile Heskey thinks he has nothing to prove (when he has an infinite amount left to prove), Owen knows that every time he goes onto the pitch he still has has to re-prove himself: each time he needs to show the world that he's still a top player, or he will once again be cast-off as past-it. Again, that's another sign of those at the top of the game - never settling for second best.

Write Michael Owen off at your peril.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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