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Michael Owen: Past his Prime or Past His Time?

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?

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  1. usf_fan1

    September 2, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    He is one of the most natural goal scorers English soccer has produced in the last 20 years. Getting him on a free is a gamble worth taking…they could rely on him as the year progresses, and as a impact sub much like Man U did with Ole Gunnar Solskjær. Good bussiness imho.

  2. bigdavestar

    August 30, 2009 at 3:35 pm

    If given the time on the pitch Owen will score goals but the fact is, Sir Alex did not buy him to play him every game. Owen will be used as an impact substitute, in carling cup games and perhaps the champions league.

  3. Ford Prefect

    August 29, 2009 at 4:15 am

    Owen is what he is–People need to remember that SAF signed him on a Free with a low salary/high incentive contract–Noone, least of all Fergie, expects him to be the “go to guy” on this squad–He’s there to come off the bench as a change of pace, and to get 10-15 goals on 25 – 30 apps–Think he’s very capable of playing that role

  4. chris

    August 29, 2009 at 2:28 am

    owen to me is a very rare footballer.yes he may not play like other striker of today but it is for certain that no other footballer can match his instinct inside the penalty box .i remember last season arsenal were playing good football but fail to score .what do you think of liverpool game .liverpool most goals scored came after 80 minutes of playing time why ? it is because every team after failing to score will resort to any sort of tactics to score and that is the time the game becomes me owen if injury free is a great signing for any club.yes it is also true at his best he was better than any strikers of today and that’s a fact.

  5. Jorge Curioso

    August 29, 2009 at 1:56 am

    Wilson? From the Manchester Guardian? Their footy writers are notoriously soft-brained, almost to the point of whatever they write, believe the opposite. Owen’s a fantastic (free) signing for United.

  6. brn442

    August 28, 2009 at 11:12 pm

    Jonathan Wilson’s and frankly your thesis of the demise of Michael Owen and the supposed bygone “one dimensional” centre-forward is slightly premature, if not completely inaccurate. Shearer and Ashton arguably were, not Owen. If Arsenal or Liverpool had a fit Owen or an Ian Wright/Rush type player (the latter two were more than poachers) the last four years – they would just about have guaranteed another title or two.
    Owen has been the odd man looking for club and country the last 3 years because he hasn’t been fit – PERIOD. ALL strikers need service but Owen in his prime, like Eto, Henry, and Ronaldo (from Brazil) had the pace and ability to run at & past defenders, plus he has that natural instinct for goal, something a supposedly “relevant” Walcott has nowhere near just yet.
    This season, if Owen stays fit and get matches under his belt we will see how much of a step a still 29 year old Owen has lost and more importantly, how he effectively he can adapt is game.
    BTW – Keegan had about as much tactical ability as my kid sister – he shouldn’t be let anywhere near a manager’s bench again – EVER.
    Torres/Drogba/Henry aren’t as versitile as you think, esp compared to Owen.
    Football is a simple sport- It’s writers and too smart for their own good mangers that think otherwise. It was only a few years ago English Clubs playing one striker in Europe was the new trend in Modern Football, and what a disaster that was.

  7. Martin W

    August 28, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    Michael who?

  8. Andy

    August 28, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    Michael Owen reminds me of a car phone. At one time, it was the coolest thing around… now, it’s just an archaic, clunky device that takes up too much space and needs to be shelved at the Smithsonian.

    Is he a star? Sure. But so was Zsa Zsa Gabor. ’nuff said.

  9. SG

    August 28, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    1. Owen was on a free
    2. He is being extremely low wages and has a highly incentive laden contract.
    3. United have not had a striker like owen since Van Nistelrooy left. Now before any says that RvN leaving was what helped ronaldo break out, that is only a partial truth. SAF would’ve kept RvN if he was willing to accept a squad place (instead of a guaranteed place in the first team) and if RvN didn’t want out of united 3 times earlier in his united career. Having a ‘fox in the box’ weapon will always bolster your squad…horses for courses and what not.
    4. Owen will not start or play all that much so united’s whole playing style won’t change much. That said, the minutes that Owen has played, united have looked much sharper in attack IMO. Players like Owen are best watched live, where one can fully see the off the ball movement that players do. Owen’s movement in the final 25 yards of the pitch is has always been one of the best in the world in the last 10 years.

    I wont be surprised if he hits 20 in all comps for united and he will be a raring success IMO. though that won’t stop the faithful at OT chanting YSB everytime he scores 😉 but he’ll love it.

  10. Bishopville Red

    August 28, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    I think he’s always been a bit of a one trick pony who doesn’t contribute to build-up, and his injuries over the years have robbed him of his best. That said, I think Joel hits the nail on the head. He’s not likely to ruin United’s attack because he’s not used enough to become the focal point (besides, with a player like Wane Rooney in your side, nobody else could be the focal point.)

    Because he does it differently than the other United forwards, what he brings to the table allows United to pick the ways they wish to exploit opposing back lines. Different horses for different courses.



    August 28, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    I think he lost a step or two of pace and hasn’t quite adapted to that yet. I think if he plays a whole season at utd getting the opportunities the utd team can provide, then his form will noticeably increase.

  12. Joel

    August 28, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    First, he was on a free. Second, he’s mostly going to be coming off the bench in order to provide something different, which I think he does. As you mentioned, United don’t have that kind of player in their squad. The hope is that he can come on and provide that little something different to break down a side. Will that happen? Who knows? But a player with his football brain and goal scoring pedigree on a free isn’t that big of a gamble.

    • Uarafool

      August 31, 2009 at 2:38 pm

      It is when you need to replace 18 plus goals from the year before!

  13. George

    August 28, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    Owen has lots of technical ability. Theres no way he would have scored so many goals if he didnt. And Owen does not stop a good team playing good football due to the fact when he gets the ball he hardly ever loses possesion

  14. randomsausage

    August 28, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    You had a reasonable argument going there until you said Drogba had “technical ability”. The lad (like Owen) can’t trap a bag ‘o cement but he is searingly fast and brutally strong. I think if Owen still had his pace he’d be a useful player…but he doesn’t, so he isn’t.

  15. coachie ballgames

    August 28, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    I’ll always have a soft spot for Mickey after 1998, but yes, his role is limited at best. But there’s always room for a relatively wee fellow to come in and nick a goal or two. Just ask Solskjaer.

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