Time For the Return of Michael Owen?

Time For the Return of Michael Owen?
December 15, 2008 Paul Tomkins

It seems strange to be talking about a goalscoring crisis after eight goals in three games, a figure racked up despite the absence of the club’s best striker.

But is there a gap in the squad? I have got to thinking about Michael Owen, whose contract is due to expire, and I’m sure I’m not alone in contemplating his return.

The benefits of Owen back at Anfield are obvious. Here is a proven goalscorer who would be available for free in the summer. Given the £12m hit the Reds took in losing Owen for £8m in 2004, there would be a perverse pleasure in getting him back for nothing. (It’s almost tempting, if only to sell him again!)

I wouldn’t see a move for Owen as the end for Robbie Keane, but it would also offset the overpayment for the Spurs striker.

In football needs must, and in the summer Keane seemed like just what was needed: a goalscorer who could link play. It hasn’t quite gone to plan as yet, but the team has moved forward this season, just as Man United’s did when they overpaid for Michael Carrick.

Anyone will overpay for what is perceived to be a signing that will exceed the usual rewards; after all, if Keane helped Liverpool win the title, it’d be worth £50m, let alone £20m. At the same time, the Reds signed David Ngog for what could prove to be a bargain £1.5m, so it’s swings and roundabouts. But there’s something about getting Owen back for nothing next summer that has a nice ring to it.

I was always a big admirer of Owen (despite his flaws), but I have long had serious doubts about how he’d fit in with the modern system that all top club sides (and even the English national team) now play. He is not suited to the lone striker role, and so while Benítez has twice thought about re-signing him, he did something far better in 2007, and went for Fernando Torres instead.

But Owen’s temporary reinvention under Kevin Keegan as a striker playing from deeper positions proved that his game has developed. The pace isn’t what it used to be, but in and around the box he remains as sharp as a tack, and has good game intelligence. He was never solely a pace merchant, although clearly it helped him.

If there’s one thing the Reds lack, even with Torres, it’s a real six-yard box predator. Providing he could fit into the team play, it could add another dimension to the squad.

But of course, Manchester United won their two most recent titles only after they offloaded their renowned poacher, and went for a more varied, fluid attacking system; so I’m in no way suggesting this as a must-happen transfer.

Jamie Carragher is Owen’s best mate, and no-one understands the striker’s game more than Steven Gerrard. So to have him in the squad makes sense on many different levels, particularly with Liverpool a little light on numbers in the striking department, and Torres’ fitness issue a lingering doubt (even if it’s one that hopefully goes away very soon). If a big fee was involved, and wages of £100,000+ a week, I’d baulk at the suggestion, but it seems neither will be the case.

Providing Owen accepted rotation (a big question, admittedly, but it may be preferable to relegation battles), I’d love to see him back in the squad. I’m not sure I’d want him starting regularly, because the Torres/Gerrard axis is truly world-class, but he does offer something distinct from what is already on the books.

I think there are few strikers as mentally strong as Owen. If anyone can handle the pressure of playing for Liverpool, it is him. He keeps returning from setbacks and overcoming criticism, and I admire him for that.

Some doubts may remain about Robbie Keane’s ability at such a big club, with his spells at Leeds (when a top four side) and Inter Milan the least impressive of his career, but Owen has succeeded at Liverpool and Real Madrid, where his record was excellent.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not writing Keane off –– far from it –– but with Kuyt doing better on the right, and Ngog and Nemeth still raw, a case could be made for one more striker, particularly if Babel isn’t considered for the role and Torres has a recurrence of the problem that was once the preserve of Owen himself. (At least the ‘hammies’ seem better these days, even if not everything else is perfect.)

It’s not just the pressure of playing for Liverpool that big names have to cope with, but playing for Benítez. He is ruthless with his strikers, as he is with all the other players.

Alvaro Arbeloa described his first few weeks at the club as ‘inhumane’, as Rafa criticised everything about his game, and even his skills in basketball sessions. But if you look at Arbeloa this season, he seems a much stronger and more determined character, and seems to have grown from the experience.

I’ve noted it before, but Torres handled the less-than-favourable treatment given to him by Luis Aragones, and ultimately won Spain the European Championship. Indeed, Torres is the only centre-forward during Rafa’s time at the club to really thrive; then again, he’s head and shoulders above all the others. Crouch did well initially, but his limitations lessened his opportunities, while Kuyt has spent more time out on the right.

There is a place for the man-management of people like Martin O’Neill, who was recently heard telling Ashley Young that the winger was a ‘genius’, but Benítez’s style, like that of Aragones, is of a hard taskmaster. And that can work too; the players just need the character to not wilt. I think Robbie Keane has the ability and self-belief to bounce back, and perhaps when he does he will feel all the stronger for it.

There are still a number of drawbacks to pursuing Owen. It could hinder the progress of Nemeth and Ngog –– but if either is to prove good enough, their time will come, no matter who is in the squad. At present we just don’t know quite how good either can be, although Nemeth has bundles of natural ability and a very canny football brain, and Ngog has the pace and height to eventually become the fulcrum for attacks, if he develops as expected and bulks up a little.

And of course, having Owen around will make it even harder for Robbie Keane to prove himself. So much of it depends on what Rafa sees in the future for the Irishman. And that’s something I just don’t know. I find it unbelievable that he’d cut his losses so soon, but I guess stranger things have happened.

Then there is the side-show of the manager’s decisions regarding Owen. I personally like the fact that Rafa will leave someone on the bench, or out of the squad, if he feels it is the right thing to do. He did it with players like Cissé and Crouch, and he’s doing it with Keane, which proves that he doesn’t pick a side based on the players’ price tags, even if he bought them.

If they’re not doing what he wants, then they have to work hard to win back their place. It can frustrate and infuriate at times, but equally it shows a good sense of authority and strong leadership.

Of course, the main worry with Owen is his fitness; but without a transfer fee, and with his wage demands likely to drop, the risk is minimised.

Then there is the question mark of how he would fit in with the style of play. There’s a reason Emile Heskey gets into the England team ahead of Owen: the former helps the team play better and others score goals. Owen’s main asset is far more selfish. At present, Heskey doesn’t score for England, but England win games. And that’s what counts.

There is definitely a time and a place for Owen’s instincts, but massive doubts remain about his ability to play as the ‘fulcrum striker’, in the way Heskey does for England, and in the way Drogba, Berbatov, Torres and Adebayor do for the big clubs. Chelsea twice won the league when Drogba barely grazed double figures, but his presence enabled Lampard, Cole, Duff and Robben the chance to fill their boots. Think team success, not individual glory.

Of course, the whole decision could rest on the progress of Owen’s friend, who started off in his shadows but now far eclipses him. The fact is that Steven Gerrard’s goalscoring tally each season is not that far behind those that Owen used to rack up –– only with far more involvement in the game, and a far superior creative streak.

It comes back to perceptions over formations. Is Gerrard playing behind Kuyt, Keane or Torres 4-5-1 or 4-4-2? No-one complained when Kenny Dalglish played behind Ian Rush all those years ago, even when the goals started drying up for the legendary no.7, as he got older and dropped deeper and deeper. But Dalglish was perceived to be a striker, and therefore everyone accepted it as 4-4-2.

This season, Gerrard and Kuyt are the Reds’ top scorers. Before the Hull game I got into a debate about viewing Gerrard as a striker, not a midfielder. This is one of the most versatile players I’ve ever seen, and a player who is now regularly notching 20 goals a season.

Every top team deploys a ‘striker’ who links play from the hole; I’ve said it before, but no successful side plays an old-fashioned 4-4-2 anymore, and yet still the obsession with it persists. Does Gerrard play the role that differently from Wayne Rooney? Does he score fewer goals? Does he play it that differently from Robin Van Persie? And so on.

I think Gerrard has continued to improve in the role of second-striker. Against Bolton I noted how his movement was akin to that of someone like Ian Rush: when Torres put in his first cross, Gerrard knew to go behind the defender, but his close-range lunge was about a millimetre from getting the contact needed. Then, for his goal, he made a superb run in front of the defender, to get a header; this really was a centre-forward’s movement.

And the greatest part about Gerrard playing in the role is that the team can then include Mascherano, who’s bullishness is vital, and Alonso, whose passing and control of games is back to its very best, if not even better. That would leave Gerrard playing either in the hole, or on the right, either of which would be fine with me, but the latter selection always causes a tiresome furore.

So will Owen return? My instincts say no. But his connections with the club and its key players, allied to his freedom of contract, could make him a gamble worth taking.


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