Toward the end of his book Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson writes about the changing nature of modern football. A player he brings up to emphasize this is Michael Owen. To Wilson, Owen is a relic of a previous era.
“He appears a player left behind by the tactical evolution of the game,” Wilson writes. “Owen could be one of those players who wins teams the occasional game, but prevents them playing good football (which means that he may prove extremely useful to mediocre sides, or even to a good side playing badly, but rarely if at all to a good side playing well).”
Michael Owen is the prototypical “fox in the box” or “goal poacher.” He does one thing. He clings to the last defender, darts onto a pass and finishes. He once did so very proficiently. Despite injuries, he remains reasonably productive. But, how valuable is that skill?
For Owen to affect the game, he needs service. He needs a midfield dedicated to feeding him. He sharpens one angle of attack, but simultaneously blunts others. A team can make Owen successful, but can he make the team successful?
Liverpool did win the Champions League the year after Owen left.
The designated finisher once was an essential position, but how many teams play such a specialist anymore? Look at last year’s Champions League finalists.
Manchester United did not play a designated goal-scorer. Berbatov is more of a facilitator. Goals came from Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney often moving in from wide roles.
Samuel Eto’o and Leo Messi scored a number of goals for Barcelona, but both play far more versatile roles, Eto’o will at times play on the wing, and defends. Messi plays on the right.
Neither Man U nor Barcelona played a goal poacher.
If looking for a designated forward, most Premier League fans would choose Didier Drogba or Fernando Torres. Both players finish, but they also are big, strong and fast enough to attack from multiple angles and create space. Their technical ability and vision allows them to facilitate teammates.
The one manager who dared press Owen, point out his weaknesses, and encourage him to expand his game was Kevin Keegan. Rather than accept the message, Owen stubbornly blamed Keegan for ruining his confidence.
Teams need forwards to do more than score goals. Judging them solely by the number of goals, hardly says anything. Unless, we are all crowning Nicholas Anelka the best striker in the Premier League.
It’s not necessarily that Michael Owen has declined, but his skill-set does not fit the modern game. The question, then, is why Manchester United bothered to sign him?