Is Michael Owen a Has-Been?

Disappointing to relate, but Wolfram Alpha can’t tell you. Yet. 

But if Cambridge’s finest is stumped, that does at least indicate that the question is open for debate. I think the answer’s no, and here are the reasons why.

1. Owen, we are told, is out of date. It is no longer enough to be just the “fox in the box.” His all-round game is not up to the demands of modern football. 

This sounds, on the face of it, a believable scenario. But it has two weaknesses. First of all, it is being said by British football journalists, most of whom have no more tactical awareness than the rest of us. Secondly, it doesn’t bear up to scrutiny.

Exactly which forward player’s “all round game” is superior to Owen’s? Rooney, certainly, although that’s an altogether unfair comparison. Does Peter Crouch have a better all-round game? Or Darren Bent? Does Fernando Torres? 

The comparison with Fernando Torres is the moot one, because Owen is by anyone’s measure still the second best English forward player, when he is fit. Once we get past Owen and Rooney, the talent gap opens prodigiously, and it has been widening more each year since Shearer and Fowler left the scene.

But is Owen still of a standard to compete with the likes of Torres? You have to be more than just an effective Englishman to justify a place at a top four club these days, or to be considered one of the best overall.

If you have ten minutes you wish to spend well, watch this collection of Torres strikes and see if you aren’t reminded of somebody:

It isn’t difficult, is it – but if you need convincing, here are seven minutes of Owen that should do the trick:

In essence, if Owen is finished because his game is old-hat, then so is the man commonly assumed to be Europe’s hottest striker.

The question is, can Owen still actually produce his game? Is he able to perform as he did in 1998, or 2002, or 2004, or 2007 when he so nearly rescued Steve McClaren single-handed in that last wild scoring streak for England?

2. Owen, we are told, has “lost that yard of pace” and “he’s not getting away from Prem defenders like he used to.”

That’s another English journalists’ meme, of course. What does losing a yard of pace mean, exactly? It would be interesting to see the actual numbers: how fast was Owen from a standing start in 1998, and how fast is he now? Speed, we now know, comes from possession of a certain kind of fast-twitch muscle fibre. To what extent can knee and ankle injuries interfere with these?

I don’t know. Do you? (If anyone has specialist knowledge, I’d be very glad to hear their views on the matter).

But I’m willing to bet that, given a full pre-season’s training, Owen will prove slower than Torres and Ronaldo, but not slower than Adebayor, Anelka, Drogba, Berbatov, Tevez or Kuyt.

3. In any event, most of Owen’s goals have come from attributes other than speed. His speed, as I’ve said, is a meme. His positioning, timing and balance are all better than all but one of his English rivals, and his finishing, when fit and in match practice, still better than almost anyone’s. The evidence for this actually comes from his time at Newcastle: at Toon, he has scored 26 league goals in 58 starts (plus 12 substitute appearances). For a man playing with in a team in spectacular decline throughout this period, with no settled partner to rely on and the only certainty being appalling service, this is an extraordinary return. It does make me wonder what he might have done at, say, Arsenal over the same period. How would Rooney, or Berbatov, or indeed Torres, fared?

Little wonder, really, that Owen looks out of sorts at Newcastle. It’s the only rational response to a shocking situation. Even Shay Given gave up on it: it’s been that bad. 

4. But will he ever be fit for an entire season ever again? His doctors seem to think so: the medical advice he has received in the wake of his recent year out is in total contrast to the non-medical opinions he is receiving from the press. The press think that he was played too much too young, and is now the footballing equivalent of a 90s supercar with moonshot mileage. 

Owen’s been out a lot this year – he’s played in only 31 games as opposed to Torres’ 36. But Torres plays at a club with modern facilities. Newcastle have one of the worst injury records over the last five years in the Premiership, and the quality of their training ground – the pitches in particular – is notorious. Keegan regarded their updating and improvement as a high priority – but then discovered what Mike Ashley’s priorities were, and left.

Were Owen to join Everton in the close season, a club able to keep its limited squad ticking in far better shape and with far less money than Toon, then he’ll have the chance to make the most of his doctors’ opinion and we’ll finally really know what he has to offer.

There is another Owen v Torres stat that is worth remembering in this context: Torres has made 300 career appearances as of this morning, and he’s 25. Owen is 29, and has made only 412.

To conclude: if Owen can get to a club that will offer him stability, proper football and good facilities, then he has a very good chance of putting in a proper season. It is more likely than not that in such circumstances, he’ll still be able to perform at the highest level – and certainly well enough to eclipse all but Rooney in the England stakes.

The question of Owen in club football is clear enough, then. But the international issue is another thing entirely.

Owen can and probably will do an excellent job for a club next season. Wherever he goes can only be an improvement. Will Wigan want to pair him with Heskey again? But what is Capello’s thinking?

Capello is reported to have told Owen that he is in his thinking, but needs, in essence, to “do a Beckham” to get back into the squad. Get a string of quality games under his belt, display the level of commitment to the cause that Capello demands, and he’ll be called up. It’s the press who say that Owen is out of the England running, not the England manager.

Whether Owen can be an automatic pick for Capello is another question – and in this instance, the press are probably right: Capello’s formations thus far do not suit Owen’s game. Nor have Owen’s recent seasons justified setting England up to suit him as they might have done before 2006.

If Capello is confronted by injuries to Gerrard and Rooney, but has a fit Owen and a fit foil (a Heskey or a Crouch) to offer him, that might change. I say might change. And if it does, the run-up to the World Cup will be all Owen needs to overtake Lineker and Charlton. 

But Wayne is 23 and has 21 international goals. The real Owen question is not whether he’s finished. It’s whether he’ll get to the international record before Rooney.

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3 responses to “Is Michael Owen a Has-Been?

  1. He just looks miserable most of the time, James. It can’t be good for him thinking Liverpool effectively ditched him and then Real Madrid let him go too. It must seem like a set of doomed bad moves.

    And who is going to take the chance now? Spurs would OK for him but they have Keane back. Villa? Fulham? He’d need a good mature manager in a team with some prospect of success.

  2. Fulham, Everton (hell, why not?), even Portsmouth where you could imagine him doing pretty well partnering Peter Crouch.

  3. Yes – just look at the chaos in international defences the Owen-Crouch partnership produced in 2006-7. Largely, it has to be said, as a result of the combination between the then inexperienced Crouch’s lack of positional sense – he’s sorted this now – and the inability of said defences to figure that someone that tall might have decent ball control.