Owen: The King Is Dead, Long Live The King

Posted by Paul Tomkins on August 10, 2004, 12:49:14 PM

If – as it appears to be true - Michael Owen has played his last game for Liverpool ahead of a move to Madrid, then it is not a disaster or a catastrophe. I'd much rather he stay, obviously, as he is an awesome talent and for years has been part of the furniture (Rafa, of course, likens most things to tables and chairs), but the club has other quality strikers at its disposal; neither Cisse or Baros are fully proven in England yet, but the former scored 70-odd goals in approximately 100 games in France, and the latter has the best strike record in international football.

These are talents who can score goals in England, given the right circumstances and the right service. What we can only trust - and hope - is that they can reproduce the way Owen scored crucial goals in the biggest games. At his best - in whatever situation - Owen would only need one chance to make it count. That wasn't the case last season, and for England over the summer, but the class is still there.

I don't feel Owen is cheating Liverpool in any way. What he said was that he'd never do what Steve McManaman did and leave Liverpool for free - not that he'd definitely sign; he said he'd like to sign, as he loves the club (clearly he does), but circumstances change. The reported fee of £10m is disappointing, but it's better than a Bosman situation. I don't blame him for being lured by Real Madrid, although with Ronaldo, Raul and Morientes (if he stays), he may not play every week. Just as most Reds' respected Ian Rush leaving for Juventus, we couldn't argue against Owen joining the world's most successful club. This is different from Steven Gerrard's dalliance with joining unproven "upstarts" Chelsea; Real are the real deal, if you will pardon the pun. I'd hate to see a backlash against Owen, as I feel he has acted honourably throughout. Sometimes players need a fresh challenge.

Unlike the summer's nightmarish prospect of losing Gerrard, Owen leaving is a blow - and an untimely one at that, with the season so close to starting - which the club can recover from (although what Gerrard thinks about it, having decided to stay, is anyone's guess). Owen hasn't appeared to have that electric burst of pace for a while; I think he's good enough not to rely solely on it, but it has perhaps taken a slight edge of parts of his game. His goal-scoring record has remained as high, however, and that's the key fact - as he is a clever player who can adapt. When the ball drops to him in the box, he thinks quickly. That's the most important part. Emile Heskey was just as quick when it came to running, but was never on his toes, anticipating.

No one should underestimate just how great Owen has been for Liverpool. He has never got the full credit or affection he deserves, and I always believed he would be dearly missed if ever he left. However, I'm no longer sure that's the case. If he leaves, I believe we can safely say that the king is dead - long live the king.

To me, Cisse possesses the potential to be even better than Owen. I'm not just saying that to kid myself, I really believe it. Settling into the Liverpool side (and one in a state of rapid flux) and into the ferocious pace of the game here may render comparisons unfair in the first twelve months, but I sense Cisse could go on to eclipse even Owen's achievements. He's still an unproven quantity here, but the regularity and quality of his goals for Auxerre - not one of the dominant French sides - tells you it's just a matter of time before he finds the net as regularly here. Unlike someone like Bruno Cheyrou, who looked scared of his own shadow (you can only imagine his terror when playing under a myriad of floodlights), Cisse is made for the Premiership.

Owen and Cisse are actually very similar players - quick in body and, in the box, quick in mind. Cisse is more like Owen as a player than he is Thierry Henry, with whom he shares more physical - and geographical - characteristics, which lead to inevitable comparisons.

Though similar players, Cisse is a lot taller than Owen, and while Owen's heading technique is very good indeed, Cisse's greater height makes him more of an aerial threat. Cisse is bigger, and stronger. He is also significantly quicker, and that's saying something. What I like most about Cisse is that he is so hungry in the box - the antithesis of Heskey, in that he looks to shoot whenever the chance is there, and even when, to other players, there would be no chance at all. He is direct, and unfalteringly positive. He has the same kind of inner confidence that Owen has (and, again, which Heskey so painfully lacked), the same kind of mental strength to keep getting into the box even if you've just missed a sitter.

Before pre-season started, I spoke of Cisse's goals for Auxerre, and the variety of them: stunning strikes, headers, and most encouragingly, tap-ins. The tap-in is the life-blood, the staple diet, of a top-class striker, and anyone who doesn't understand the game will always say "that's the easiest goal he'll score this season, yada yada...". Tap-ins are about many things: it's not just about knowing where to stand, as that suggests you merely hang around and wait for the ball. It's the movement that gets you there which tends to go unnoticed; spectators can ball-watch, and only see the striker at the end of the move, instead of watching how he gets there.

Cisse's first goal against Celtic tells me everything about his quality as a finisher. It irks me no end when I hear comments like "my granny could have scored that" - Cisse played a delightfully weighted pass out to the right to Murphy, but in an instant makes an arcing run around the back of the defenders, and within a heartbeat he's unmarked at the back post to tap into an empty net (is your granny really that quick?). I don't want to make this about bashing Emile Heskey, who had some admirable traits, but any decent pass he'd lay off - and they weren't that frequent - would be followed by an amble forward, or maybe he'd even just stop and watch play continue around him. The speed and cleverness of Cisse's run meant he lost any potential marker and gave himself an unmissable chance by being there for Danny to roll the ball to. You can't coach that instinct - if you could, Ian Rush would have made a finisher out of Heskey.

Another Cisse goal, for Auxerre last season, further highlights the cleverness - and variety - of his movement. This time a teammate made it to the left-hand byline, and Cisse darted to the near post, with his marker in close attendance. Then, fractionally before the ball was released, Cisse took a handful of quick steps backwards, so when the cross sailed over his marker's head, he was totally free in the centre of the goal with an easy header to score. If you can think so intelligently, and lose a marker so easily, you will score goals in any league - especially if you have the intuition of a striker when it comes to tucking the ball away as well. It's one thing making space for yourself, but pointless if you balloon the ball into the Kop.

The other reason I don't see losing Owen as a total body blow is that I've long doubted his ability to form dynamic partnerships, and certainly the other three strikers we have are not the complimentary kind. I felt Owen and Cisse would score hatfuls of goals together, but that it wouldn't necessarily be with great interplay between the two. Maybe it's unfair on Owen, as he hasn't played with many "creative" strikers, and his partnership with Litmanen was never allowed to develop. Because he is small, Owen has been paired with big strikers who take the physical brunt, but don't offer Owen the kind of passes he can score from. Shearer and Heskey were good foils, but not good creators. Cisse can take his own batterings, and come out standing, so a smaller creative player off of him does not pose the same problem.

Losing Owen would give us that chance to bring in a more creative striker, to play off of the front man, be it Cisse or Baros (and occasionally Pongolle - who has amazing control and pace, but who has yet to find his scoring boots). Even before Benitez officially took the job, I categorically stated that he would play two up front, as when you inherit a glut of great strikers, you make good use of them; many other people felt he'd stick to 4-5-1, his preferred system. Benitez proved me right, but now that could all change. There's an opening for a different kind of striker, or for an attacking playmaker such as Aimar (although not Aimar, who would be too pricey). Interestingly, Le Tallec is the kind of player who could fill that role, but is perhaps lacking in experience for such a crucial season - if he returns next summer a better player, Liverpool will benefit hugely.

The best partnerships tend to be a goalscorer coupled with a creative player just behind - but one who can score 20 goals himself. Think Rush with Dalglish, Aldridge with Beardsley, Lineker with Beardsley, Anelka with Bergkamp (when Denis was still scoring), and even - dare I say it - Cole with Yorke in the Mancs' 1999 treble season (almost as impressive as ours from 1984), where Yorke played deeper to link play, but still scored 30-odd goals.

A player who'd be ideal is Fernando Morientes, who we've been subsequently linked with. He may not want to leave his beloved Madrid having finally made his way back there, but Owen arriving will hardly make him feel happier about his prospects. Perhaps our Spanish manager would be a good selling point for LFC? He scores goals, is wonderful in the air, but also has a nice touch and a perceptive brain, and for Monaco last season would drop deep to make things happen. He'd be a nice option, but I'm sure Rafa has players in mind if that's not the case.

It's been a weird few days, with Danny Murphy opting to ply his trade elsewhere, and hardly the best preparation for a crucial game (against average opposition, but opposition who will be much sharper due to having played four league games already, and without the hassles of players and managers coming and going). I don't blame Danny, as he was told he wouldn't play much - which is as good as being told you're not wanted. Rafa must have top quality players in mind, to replace a player I rated highly, but who I always felt needed to either himself improve by 30%, or be improved upon in the transfer market. Ideally, he'd have been shipped out next summer, but our manager knows what he's doing. Suddenly half of the local "core" Rafa was so pleased about could be erased. Still, they were Chester lads, not Scousers. And so long as players are good enough for LFC, and take pride in their performances, we'll be okay. This is clearly going to be a transitional season, and it may prove more difficult that people at first expected, but so long as we are heading in the right direction come May, we can look upon it as hugely beneficial for upcoming campaigns.

I'd like to end by saying - if this really is goodbye - that Owen has given us fans some amazing memories, and given Liverpool Football Club many years of wonderful service. He will be 25 in four months' time, so we have had half of his career. As with Danny Murphy, I wish him all the best, and I'll look forward to watching Real Madrid on TV next season and who knows? - hopefully at Anfield in the Champions League, too.

© Paul Tomkins

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