Sir Alex Ferguson has admitted that Michael Owen is now giving him a real problem. For the past seasons the striker has been part of the chorus line. Now the Manchester United manager is being forced into thinking that the 31-year-old deserves some star billing.
The problem for Ferguson is how to accommodate Owen when he is so spoilt for choice.
Wayne Rooney, naturally, is an automatic selection which, when the formation is 4-4-2, leaves one front line space left. Last season that place normally went to Javier Hernandez with Dimitar Berbatov next in line and Owen very much at the back of the queue.
Danny Welbeck’s return from his loan at Sunderland has complicated matters. In the injury absence of Chicharito at the start of this campaign he was a revelation alongside Rooney before damaging his hamstring.
Welbeck’s return, given the brilliance of Hernandez’ debut season and Berbatov’s refusal to accept he would be better off elsewhere, should have meant even less game time for Owen who, to the surprise of many, was given a new one-year contract in the summer.
Except Owen, clearly, has become far more of a factor than merely acting as a backup on the bench. Here are five reasons, some of which Ferguson himself must have considered, why Owen deserves the chance to become the star attraction he once was at Anfield.
Owen always was a bright boy. Even as an 18-year-old at Anfield making his breakthrough he was able to learn fast when it came to the big time.
Here was someone who didn’t come from the mean streets. He was a middle-class lad with a good education and so he could build his football knowledge not just on pure instinct but because he had the ability to listen, learn and assess. He’s a lot older, now, but the intellect is only stronger. Ferguson likes brainy footballers, and Owen is very much one of them.
The numbers add up. He played 297 games for Liverpool, scoring 158 times. At Real Madrid he collected 16 strikes in 45 appearances, mainly from the bench. He spent too much time having treatment at Newcastle but still hit the net on 30 occasions in the 79 times he was on the pitch.
Going into the Champions League game with Basle he had worn United’s red 49 times and produced 16 goals, again mainly as a substitute while his international ratio is impressive—40 goals in 89 appearances. In total he has scored 260 times. He knows how to find the net. Ferguson knows that too.
Ferguson, for all his love of youth in his teams, has always relied on players with vast experience which is why Ryan Giggs is still there, why Paul Scholes could have had another contract if he had wanted, why Edwin van der Sar was so valuable and why he left it to Gary Neville to call it a day, just
as he did with Scholes.
It is not only about the contributions the wrinklies make on the pitch. It is about using them as role models. He has already said that Javier Hernandez can further his education by watching Owen because they are very much similar in size and style. Owen is also clean-cut, a model pro, just like Scholes, Van der Sar and Neville. Giggs lost that image last season but for all that, he has never been late for training.
Ferguson likes having players around that the younger ones can look up to and Owen is very much in that mould.
Owen may initially have just been so happy that he was moving to Old Trafford from Newcastle as opposed to having to switch to a far less glamorous club—Stoke City wanted him—and so he may then have been prepared to accept any role just to be there. Yet Ferguson has noted how diligent Owen has been in his work, how committed he is to the cause.
His tasks, at times, have been menial for someone who has been there, seen that and bought the T-shirt. Yet there has never been a complaint. His state of mind, his determination to do the best he can no matter the job given to him is one reason he has earned the right to be considered for more demanding tasks. He could, in fact, become United’s ace in the hole when push comes to shove in the Champions League.
Despite what Owen Hargreaves may say, the fitness, training and remedial setup within Old Trafford is as good as it gets, a state of the art operation designed to get the best out of each player no matter their problems. It has taken Owen two years, including a few setbacks, to get himself back to real fitness having been afflicted with hamstring injuries, especially, throughout his career.
One reason for his hamstring weakness was that he was either played, or demanded to be played, too often, particularly as a youngster. The fitness and training regime at Old Trafford is beginning to have very positive effects for Owen and while he doesn’t quite have the old electric pace, he’s still pretty quick for all that. He now runs like he is not afraid whereas once he ran like he was injured, and he was injured or carrying injuries a lot plus he is part of a big, big squad. Now he can be sure of getting R&R.
A fit Michael Owen is a very dangerous Michael Owen.