|Is he coming to an end?|
Instead of being where his talent once insisted he should be – leading England in an international tournament – he was engaging in the lonely process of rehabilitation, watching from afar and thinking about what he was seeing.
It wasn’t just the performance of his own side that gave him pause. It was the wider patterns of play and what they meant for his own future. So, watching the growing pre-eminence of a 4-2-3-1 system, did he think it signals the demise of a player like him? In short, is Michael Owen an endangered species?
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Owen says, as he sits in Manchester United’s training ground last week, a couple of days after he featured in his side’s Community Shield victory at Wembley.
“The player I used to be, looking to play off the last man’s shoulder, I probably wouldn’t be suited to play as a lone striker. Having said that, it’s a bit premature to say 4-4-2 is over. Chelsea played 4-5-1 last Sunday. We played 4-4-2 and beat them. You have to have a tweak to it, though. You have to match them. On Sunday that was me sitting on their holding midfielder when they had the ball, trying to even up the numbers in midfield.’’
Does this mean, if he wants to get on in the modern game, the ace poacher has had to sacrifice his predatory instincts to the wider benefit of the team?
“I wouldn’t call it sacrificing,” he says. “It’s adapting to the job required. When you’re a kid you just think about where you are going to be to put yourself in a position for the next scoring chance. But as you develop, you start to do things that may not catch the eye of the normal football watcher, the dropping back, the closing down. When you see problems arising, you have to counter their attacks. That’s all part of modern football.”
There was a time Michael Owen did not talk like this. In interviews during his time as England’s golden boy, he tended to the bland and evasive. But having turned 30, he has increasingly found himself drawn to talking about the game. His columns for this paper during the World Cup surprised many with their insight. Now at Manchester United, he seems keen to learn from the greatest contemporary exponent of football management, to widen his employment horizons for the day he retires.
“I never used to think I’d do it,” he says of the possibility of life in the dug-out. “When I was younger, I’d just play my own game, half the time forgetting all about what I’d just been told by the manager. But the older you get, the more you question the instructions you get, ask yourself why he’s said that, what is he trying to produce here, how can I fit into it. As I’ve got older, I’ve become more intrigued about formations, tactics, I listen a lot more to the manager’s team talk; as a kid, if I’m honest, I never listened. I don’t think I could coach, mind. When you’ve been playing at the top of the profession, you enjoy that pressure. A coach is a bit too behind the scenes for my adrenalin needs. I’d would see myself more in the management role, yeah.”
In which case, now he has been studying tactics, does he share the theory doing the rounds that Sir Alex Ferguson intends to use his strikers in pairs this season, with Owen playing alongside Wayne Rooney and Javier Hernández and Dimitar Berbatov (whose second-half pairing against Chelsea won the game for United) as an alternative? In an echo of the Cole/Yorke and Sheringham/Solskjaer partnerships that brought him his finest hour, this might be called Fergie’s 99 position.