The explosive days of his England youth may be behind him, but Michael Owen still represents a dangerous threat to opposition defences. Get him on the pitch, and he will score.
The image of a teenage Michael Owen, weaving his way effortlessly through the Argentina defence, dragging a sluggish England to their feet with a powerful yet majestic slalom and finish, will live long in the memory for most of us. The explosion of a prodigious talent circa 1998 is epitomized by the effortless grace of that World Cup goal; direct, aggressive, composed, beautiful.
How things have changed. At 32 years of age, after a fifth season in seven years in which he has failed to reach 20 league games, Michael Owen will find himself a free agent following his release from Manchester United.
What now, for a striker adamant that he remains a physical force capable of competing amongst England's elite? Analysing his statistical record, and the comparatively small dent he would make in prospective suitors wage budgets, substantiates Owen's claims that he can still 'score goals at the highest level', even if the pace and agility of his exhilarating youth are now only fading memories. Owen could provide a valuable (if not part-time) service for a number of Premier League clubs.
Absence from United side: injury, or competition?
Explanation for Owen's release and desperately unfortunate recent history is unnecessary; injury problems have plagued the once great striker for over a decade. A dark cloud has lurked ominously over the head of the prolific goalscorer throughout his career, threatening to overshadow his talent; threatening to descend upon him in his prime; and threatening to ground his dribbles and slaloms to a halt.
Owen's medical woes have only exacerbated as his career has progressed, culminating in a measly 13 league appearances in two Manchester United seasons. However, despite spending 13 months of his 35 at United on the treatment table, there is another blindingly obvious reason for the absence of first-team opportunities afforded to him by Ferguson. These reasons are: Rooney, Welbeck, Berbatov, and Hernandez. Four very good reasons.
In fact, Owen's groan-inducing reputation as an injury prone player masks the hidden truth behind his abject appearance record – that he was consistently the fourth or fifth choice striker at Old Trafford for the entire duration of his tenure. His underwhelming twelve appearances in two seasons (scoring twice) owes as much to his inability to secure a place ahead of his world-class team mates as it does to his permanently fragile hamstrings.
Owen's goalscoring record at Man United
Two goals in twelve games is an unattractive figure, but it is misleading: a number of these appearances are as a substitute, and amount to several minutes apiece. A statistic more representative of the truth is that Owen has scored 2 goals in 230 league minutes; that amounts to 2 goals in 2.5 games, or a 0.8 goals to game ratio, higher than any player in the league.
Admittedly, if Owen had featured more times, this average would most likely be significantly lower, and his absence from league matches is still insufficient evidence for his prowess. Let us, then, ignore the misleading league appearance statistics and analyse his record in the tournaments in which he consistently played (as a result of Ferguson fielding weaker teams to rest his star performers), namely the League Cup, FA Cup, and Champions League.
19 games, 14 goals. A commendable -nay, remarkable – record. The pinnacle of Europe's goalscoring talent, playing with the confidence and technical assurance that is built upon regular appearances, would be proud of this statistic. Owen on the other hand, produced this form whilst playing sporadically and amongst a group of individuals he cannot have been used to playing alongside. It is a statistic that should prick up the ears of a number of top level coaches across Europe.
Who would want him?
A similar record can, of course, be found throughout his sparkling, if not consistent, career. A brief homage to the proficiency of Michael Owen: Liverpool – 297 games, 158 goals; Real Madrid – 45 games, with only 15 starts, 16 goals (highest goals to minutes ratio in La Liga); Newcastle – 79 games, 30 goals. Not bad.
Owens' injury record may prevent him from providing consistency at any potential club (although he has been fully fit between August and January in all three of his Man Utd seasons), but his comparably low wages make him a low risk signing.
Owen is earning an estimated £30 000 p/w in Manchester, with the remainder of his contract dependant upon appearances – a 'pay-as-you-play' contract. Admittedly, many Premier League clubs would be unwilling to part with this figure, let alone on a player unlikely to figure each week.
However, analysing the player's recent interviews, acceptance of a significant pay reduction is highly likely. Owen's refusal to consider retirement is testament to his passion for the game; playing football is a more significant factor than monetary concerns, for a player described by Ferguson as a 'consummate professional'.
In fact, Owen took a £75 000 p/w pay cut to join Man United, further indicating his willingness to sacrifice money if required. Three years and several injuries later, Owen will be acutely aware of the unattractive figure he has come to represent. An almost exclusively 'pay-as-you-play' contract is a genuine possibility for any club that wishes to take a gamble on, potentially, an outstanding marksman.
Aston Villa, Everton, or Sunderland are all lacking in fire-power. Even Liverpool may consider a deal viable. After all, Liverpool and Dalglish have bemoaned their inability to convert chances into goals all season.
On a low wage with appearance clauses, the financial gamble is minimal. In return, Owen offers a service difficult to find, at any level. The explosive days of his England youth may be behind him, but Michael Owen still represents a dangerous threat to opposition defences. Get him on the pitch, and he will score.