Tactics: Michael Owen – they think it’s all over, it already was

The news that Michael Owen will miss the rest of the season with a damaged hamstring prompted strange paroxysms of grief from those pundits who felt the injury had crushed the 30-year-old’s dreams of playing at a fourth World Cup with England this summer. In reality, his hopes have been dashed for some time. 

As an out-and-out central striker whose game is fundamentally about scoring goals, he is a dying breed. The modern striker must do more than just score and all of Owen’s rivals for a seat on the plane to South Africa give more to the team than goals alone.

The following diagrams, screenshots from ESPN Soccernet, are heat maps detailing the involvement of Owen, Aston Villa’s Emile Heskey, Tottenham’s Peter Crouch, West Ham’s Carlton Cole and Fulham’s Bobby Zamora in the last Premier League home games in which they completed 90 minutes.

Michael Owen, Manchester United 3-0 Everton (21 November 2009):

Emile Heskey, Aston Villa 0-0 Wigan Athletic (15 August 2009):

Peter Crouch, Tottenham Hotspur 0-0 Aston Villa (6 February 2010):

Carlton Cole, West Ham United 1-2 Bolton Wanderers (6 March 2010):

Bobby Zamora, Fulham 2-1 Birmingham City (21 February 2010):

The diagrams suggest that, in a typical match, Owen is less involved in the game than either Heskey, Crouch, Cole or Zamora. All five were playing at home against teams their sides were expected to beat. Owen was a peripheral figure in what was a comfortable victory for United, flitting across the pitch laterally and doing very little work either on the flanks or in midfield. Heskey, by contrast, was equally present in both penalty areas, while Zamora was heavily involved in his side’s build-up play on the right flank and both Cole and Crouch played a much more active role right across the opposition’s half.

Owen, though, is not competing with players like Heskey and Crouch for a place in Fabio Capello’s squad. His inadequacy as a target man requires no further elucidation. If he is to resurrect his England career it will be as a goalscorer, but even there he fails to match up.

Owen’s real rival is Jermain Defoe. The Tottenham man, like Owen, is a true goalscorer; a short, explosive centre forward who plays a minimal role in build-up play but springs to life when the ball comes into the penalty area. Unfortunately for Owen, Defoe is in the form of his life. With 16 league goals to date this season, Defoe has already surpassed his previous best Premier League goal tally (13) and currently averages a goal every 126.25 minutes. Owen, in stark contrast, has just three league goals to his name this term and hits the net, on average, every 206.33 minutes. His minutes-per-goal ratio is worse than Wayne Rooney’s (99.65), Darren Bent’s (138.83) and Carlton Cole’s (172.89) and less than 24 minutes better than the record of Burnley’s David Nugent (229.8).

“Two weeks ago, no-one would have considered Owen to go to the World Cup but he gets a hat-trick and now he has got to go,” said Defoe’s club coach Harry Redknapp in December after Owen’s Champions League triple at Wolfsburg. “I love Michael Owen and think he is terrific, but players become great one week and bad players the next. It is amazing how people judge football and it varies so quickly from week to week and game to game.”

It is not just this season, though, that Defoe averages more goals than Owen. Over the last three campaigns, Defoe has averaged a goal every 148.97 minutes. For Owen, the figure is 213.77. With Rooney, Heskey and Crouch all seemingly pencilled in for the World Cup already, Owen comes up well short against his principal rival for the fourth and likely final forward spot.

Owen apologists allege that his all-round game is better than he is given credit for. His autobiography, Off The Record, contains a comment from Glenn Hoddle, in which the then-England coach explains to Owen why he had publicly asserted that he was not a ‘natural finisher’. “You create chances for others,” Hoddle is reported to have said. “To me, a natural finisher is someone who stands in the box and waits for the ball. But you can link play.”

The trouble is, he can’t. Link-up play is something that Owen is supposed to bring to the table but a look at the statistics for Premier League assists over the last three seasons reveals that he is again well off the pace:

Premier League assists between 2007 and 2010
- Wayne Rooney: 24
- Carlton Cole: 16
- Peter Crouch: 14
- Bobby Zamora: 14
- Darren Bent: 11
- Jermain Defoe: 9
- Emile Heskey: 7
- Michael Owen: 2

[Source: http://www.premierleague.com/page/Statistics/0,,12306,00.html]

Two assists in just under three years. If he doesn’t create any goals, what does his link-up play actually constitute? Simply passing the ball to his team-mates?

It is overwhelmingly apparent that when it comes to on-pitch contribution, assists and goals, Owen is not at the races. The one thing he has in his favour is his superb international scoring record of 40 goals in 89 games, but Owen’s last goal against a top-rank international opponent came in the 3-2 friendly win against Argentina in November 2005.

Since he returned to England from Real Madrid that year, Owen has scored 29 league goals at an average of just 5.8 per season. Yes, he has struggled with injuries and yes, he spent four years in an under-performing Newcastle United team, but valid excuses will count for little when England find themselves having to break down the well-drilled defences that will confront them in South Africa.

Rooney and Heskey are both likely to start England’s World Cup campaign as arch-pragmatist Capello’s first-choice forwards, particularly given Defoe’s largely anonymous performance in a starting role in the 3-1 friendly defeat of Egypt last week. From the bench, Crouch offers a different angle of attack and Defoe boasts speed and sharpness, while Theo Walcott has genuine pace as well as an eye for goal.

So why pick Owen, who himself admits he isn’t even thinking about South Africa? He does less for the team than Heskey, makes fewer goals than Crouch and Cole, scores fewer goals than Defoe, is slower than Walcott and has not started more than 30 games in a Premier League season since 2002-03. The surprising thing, given the statistics, is not that Michael Owen is not going to the World Cup but that anyone felt he stood a genuine chance of doing so in the first place.

7 Responses to “Tactics: Michael Owen – they think it’s all over, it already was”

  • Chris Williams:

    Michael Owens latest injury blip came as no surprise; the time spent by the media dwelling over his now inevitable omission from the World Cup squad was, as ever, some what over zealous. Owens season never really got going, other than an inspired end to the Manchester derby, too many questions were asked whether his move to Manchester was a good choice, consequently this blighted his season and drew the sort of attention that a possible candidate for the World Cup doesn’t need. Cappello will rightfully stand by his view that if players are not playing for their club, they should not be playing for their country, and Owen will rarely be picked in front of an in form Wayne Rooney with the formation that UTD have adopted for the majority of this season.
    I do, however, feel that criticising Owens work rate by comparing his pitch movements a little harsh. He is simply not that sort of player. He compares with the likes of Gary Lineker and plays to his strengths of getting into the right positions and when given the opportunity, scoring goals.
    In Manchester UTD vs Everton game Owen was partnered with Rooney up front who will inevitably do the grafting side of the game where as Owens job, and more than likely his instructions, would have been made simple – give the defenders something to think about and be ready and waiting when the ball comes. In the game in question Everton seldom gave the UTD defence much to think about and played deep, it would have been deemed ridiculous for Owen to do anything other than play off the Everton back line, giving further space for Carrick and Fletcher (who both scored) and allow the likes of Giggs, Valencia and Rooney to concentrate more on the build up play.
    Last season I went to the Everton – Newcastle game at Goodison and was caught up in conversation with a Newcastle fan whose drinking habit matched his figure. In comparing team line ups the conversation swiftly moved onto Owen, his views were simply put (even with the beer driven Geordie accent) “if Owen doesn’t score, he does nothing, but the rest of the team doesn’t help him, all they need to do is give him the ball and he’ll score.” I’ll concede that, given his view that Martins was the best striker in the premiership, his view may not have much weight, but the argument is justified.
    Having two strikers that do nothing but work hard means that more often are not England could be left without a “fox in the box” figure that Owen could have filled. Owen will never be defending in his own box, but who would want him there? Heskey, Zamora, and Cole have the physical attributes that would aid their teams’ defensive needs whereas Owen will be far more affective in any possible counter attacks.
    At Everton a couple of seasons ago we had Andy Johnson playing as a lone striker, and he was probably one of the hardest working players on the pitch. He was dropped, for Yakubu, a far less hard working player but far more productive as he scored goals. He was in the positions that Johnson couldn’t get to for playing in too many positions and doing too much work.
    As an Evertonian sticking up for Owen doesn’t make me feel all that easy, I’ll agree that he does not offer the same assist ratio, work rate or pace as some of the other contenders. But, in a tight game in the latter stages of the World Cup where clear chances are seldom, I’m not sure there is another player an England fan would have rather seen the ball land to than a composed Michael Owen.

  • I see your point, but this idea that Owen is still England’s most lethal finisher is a myth. He’s scored just 29 league goals in the last five seasons. His last goal for England was in September 2007. The goal against City and the Carling Cup final opener were probably the only vital goals he’s scored since 2005. His only other two league goals this season were scored when the game was already won (the fourth goal in the 5-0 win at Wigan, the third goal in the 3-0 win at home to West Ham), while the hat-trick at Wolfsburg happened after United had already qualified. Why do people still think he’s the fox in the box par excellence? There’s no basis to it. This idea that he never misses is nonsense too. Ask any United fan how many one-on-ones he’s fluffed this season.

    I agree that it’s unfair to compare him to players like Heskey and Crouch, but Defoe’s performance against Egypt demonstrated that a striker has got to offer more than just goals to make Capello’s preferred system work. If we were talking about pairing Owen with Heskey or Crouch or Carlton Cole then fair enough, it might work. But as the focal point of the attack in a 4-2-3-1 where he has to hold the ball up, link up with the attacking midfielders and occupy both opposition centre-backs on his own? No chance. He’s not up to it.

    • To back your point up about the myth about Owen’s finishing. Provided by the ever-excellent OptaJoe on Twitter:

      “This season Owen’s had 17 shots in the PL, seven on target and two goals. Conversion rate of 11.8%.”

      Not exactly clinical. Unfortunately, the old adage of “give Owen a (half-)chance, and he’ll take it” has long since become obsolete.

  • Chris Williams:

    If we’re talking solely about starting line ups then Owen should never be considered, he will never fit into that system.
    That said, I still think a fit Michael Owen who has been playing games could have been an asset. His season has been spent warming the bench and been constantly rusty, starting a handful of games – he’s been victim of a system that works and an in form Rooney so in all fairness, never had the chance to really step up the gears. My arguement is that Owen, after the season he has had, should not have been considered for the World Cup. Had he been playing regularly to his potential, I still think he’d have been an asset to the squad (as a substitute) if Capello chose to deviate from his current system during a game. I said when he moved to United that he could regret it, and I still hold that view as he’s a player who needs regular games to gain confidence and eventually, score goals.

  • I think Owen’s link-up play and balance he can provide to a passing side is severly underrated. To be fair to the guy, he’s had to play in difficult and with badly functioning United sides – against Fulham(3-5-2 anyone) and Everton spring to mind. But he did well against Wolfsburg on the break and definitely the Germans would love someone like him.

    Against Egypt, you saw Defoe’s limitations – very individualistic. And while it’s purely hypothetical, Owen I feel would have done better and his partnership and understanding with Rooney has always been good. Keegan said once, unless you wourk with him, you don’t realise how good he is overall and then put him behind the main forward for the two half seasons he was in charge for.

  • [...] World Cup with England this summer. In reality, his hopes have been dashed for some time.” (Football Further) Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)‘England’s bigger than Michael Owen [...]

  • Matt:

    Good piece that, well thought out.

    I don’t know what the media’s obssession was with Owen.

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