Could this former United and Liverpool star have been the greatest player of a generation?
You see them in the opening titles on Match of the Day; feature articles line programmes up and down the country every single week and fans are always on the lookout for the next youngster to emulate the talents of yesteryear.
The Premier League era has graced us with hundreds of good strikers, but very few make it into the illustrious club of legends – Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba, Alan Shearer, Eric Cantona. I suppose we’d better add Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in there now as well. In the ever-changing and fickle nature of football, it’s easy enough for a single player to be forgotten.
In my opinion, that is what, unjustly, sometimes happens to Michael Owen.
The beginning of Michael Owen’s career was simply breathtaking, from the moment he announced himself on the international stage at the 1998 World Cup against France to the last of 158 goals he netted for Liverpool across 8 glorious seasons.
He would go on to score barely a third of that record throughout the entire rest of his career, which was hampered by recurring injuries and a reduction in playing time.
In my opinion, Owen can be considered second to only Alan Shearer in terms of the greatest striker of the Premier League era, and I have an interesting statistic to back up this bold claim.
I’ve taken a catchment group of eight strikers, Owen included, and worked out the average number of goals scored per game throughout their playing careers. Alan Shearer stands dominant, with a goal every 1.93 games. Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero sits behind him on 1.96, but it is worth noting the Argentine has played far less games than any of his competitors.
Michael Owen scored a goal every 2.17 games during his playing career – an outstanding record.
To put this into context, the other strikers in the catchment group that he outscores are Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, Thierry Henry, Didier Drogba and Jermain Defoe. That’s not an easy record to argue against.
If we consider Aguero’s average will probably rise as his playing career continues, Owen will in all probability be the second ‘best’ striker in Premier League history, on statistics alone.
Then there is his playing style. Every striker has their attributes. Who could forget the strength, heading ability and shot power of the aforementioned Shearer? Or the moments of finesse and technical wizardry from Henry in his prime?
Owen’s greatest strengths relied in his unpredictability. What blueprint is there for dealing with a small, pacy and sometimes remarkable finisher? He also possessed a fantastic knack for opportunism, fashioning goals from situations that looked improbable at best.
His short passing ability meant he could often double-up and create chances for his team-mates and, despite a lack of height, his heading ability as a goalscorer was proven. Owen also had a habit of turning up on the big stage, the 2001 FA Cup Final serving as my example. Without Michael Owen that day, Liverpool would have lost. Plain and simple.
Owen’s international record also screams ‘legend’. 40 goals in 89 appearances that spanned a decade and featured appearances at five major tournaments justifies Owen’s position in any international hall of fame. He sits fifth in the all-time England top-goalscorers list, the only contemporary striker ahead of him being current captain, Wayne Rooney.
Sven-Goran Eriksson was once quoted as saying that “You know if he is on the pitch, there is always the chance to win until the last second of the game.”, whilst Glenn Hoddle commented “He is in the top four of our greatest finishers, along with Jimmy Greaves, Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer. Some might say he is top of that list.” At least Hoddle agrees with me, then.
I haven’t even scratched the surface on his individual honours. Owen was awarded the prestigious Ballon d’Or in 2001, signifying him as the best player internationally for that year. He would win the Premier League golden boot twice and be named it’s best player for the 1997-98 season alongside a PFA Young Player of the Year award. He was named in the Premier League ‘Team of the
Decade’ and was recognised by Pele as a member of the ‘FIFA 100’, signifying the international significance of Michael Owen’s talents. This is supported by a FIFA World Cup Best Young Player Award in 1998, as well as numerous other small but significant awards he received throughout his playing career.
For me, there are two factors that offer some explanation as to why Owen is perhaps not regarded as one of, if not the best, striker that England has seen.
Firstly, the move to Real Madrid. You can’t blame any player for their head being turned by the lure of the Spanish giants, especially given that Rafael Benitez had recently taken over at Liverpool and, as Steven Gerrard documents in his autobiography, Owen wasn’t happy.
Had Owen remained in England with Liverpool or another big club, we could well be looking at a serious challenger to Alan Shearer’s record.
Would Owen have scored 110 more goals in the remaining nine years of his contract had he played regular Premier League football, injury-free? At 0.46 goals per game, incidentally a better record than Shearer, you have to argue at 19 goals per season on average, he’d had come extremely close.
That last point leads me into my second point; injuries. In many ways, the 2006 World Cup match against Sweden changed Michael Owen’s career. A tear in the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee required reconstructive surgery and Owen admitted in March 2009 that all the injuries he was sustaining were as a direct result of the after-effects of that one challenge in 2006.
Had Owen remained injury-free, in my opinion his goalscoring feats would have continued for season upon season, and not factored into his decision to retire aged just 34. Whilst it is true he played over another century of matches in English football following the tackle, his reactions and movement were considerably changed.
The 2010 Carling Cup Final against Aston Villa is a good example, with Owen chasing for a through ball and then pulling up with an injury before being substituted for Rooney. Owen scored the first and only goal at that point for Manchester United, as a side-note. I did mention he turns up on the big stages, right?
In summary, whilst I feel we as a nation do recognise Michael Owen’s talent, there is a tendency to focus on the injury-hit striker of his later games, rather than the prolific goalscorer that could, and should, have risen to the top of the record books. His statistics show that, had his career panned out differently in terms of injuries and club movements, we could well be looking at the greatest finisher in the English game.
In my opinion, the greatest player of certainly a generation, and probably of all-time. Only Alan Shearer sits in my mind as a potential rival to that crown. But that’s just me.
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