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
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.