Michael Owen’s Liverpool legacy has always had a slight question mark over it, but does he deserve it? There was no doubt his early flush of success was an astonishing legacy. His incredibly high scoring rate in the first few years of his career led to him being awarded the Balloon d’Or in 2001. He has scored a staggering 158 goals in 297 matches.
Success breeds expectation
It’s one of the biggest clichés there is to become a victim of your own success, but you could argue that Michael Owen might be one of the best poster boys for this. It seemed that he was never able to match the consistency of his first four years in senior play. Rather like the tennis player Richard Gasquet, who would often dominate Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on the junior circuit, Gasquet was never able to translate that success in the senior ranks.
Owen didn’t have the exact same problem, but he seemed to carry the burden of his early success heavily on his shoulders, and once the imperial phase run was broken, he appeared to look back and try to reconstruct the magic touch through logic and coaching practice, rather than taking a more organic approach and understanding that ebbs and flows of form are part of the natural cycle of any footballer’s career.
Owen was always on or near the pitch
Even the most talented geniuses of the pitch will have dips of form. Rather like driving a car into a skid on an icy road, it is better to ride out a dip in form, rather than try and resist it. Many experts in the know look back on Owen’s career and said that his stubborn resistance of acknowledging a dip in form is probably the reason he extended that cycle.
It is pretty simple for people to pick this dynamic out in hindsight, and sports psychology has moved on even in the last decade or so, but it would have been interesting to rerun Owen’s career and have given him access to sports top psychologists in the crucial 2002-2003 seasons.
Owen’s passion for the game is unquestioned, but he often cites his hamstring injury at the age of 19 as the beginning of the end for his golden years. But one of the things that always will surprise expert pitch-watchers is how he didn’t seem to gel with colleagues who in theory should have been perfect on pitch matches for him, if you were betting person you wouldn’t have bet against it.
On the international pitch Shearer and Rooney could each have made a dream duo with Owen, but for some unfathomable reason, that never really materialised. Rooney speaks in his biography of the mystery of this dynamic. Normally the sofa-sitting pundits can come up with at least a few theories for any dynamics of the game, but this lack of personal chemistry is one of the great mysteries of the game.
Some unfair pundits have pointed to a lack of flair in Owen’s personality with his present day punditry and commentary, but not every player can bee as loud and large as life as Paul Gasgoigne, or as formidable and controlling as a Ronaldo. Even if Owen is a stable character whose down to earth and reliable nature is unfairly perceived as blandness, there is no real reason why he couldn’t click with the more passionate-natured Rooney.
On a national level, exactly the same thing appeared to happen with Owen and Fowler in the late nineties and early naughties. Manager Houllier had many options but he quickly got frustrated with the lack of spark between Fowler and Owen. They should have been a goal scoring lock, but it never quite materialised, although Fowler did suffer a fateful injury just as he and Owen were trying to cement their partnership.
Owen’s unemotional but direct play and Fowler’s more effervescent ebb and flow of brilliance were eventually deselected in favour of Emile Heskey’s more workmanlike but dependable flair. He was the MBappe of the day, always giving a generous pass where a more self-absorbed player would have perhaps taken the chance themselves.
The final years.
If anything quietly shines through Owen’s sometimes indistinct final years as a professional, it is a sense of stoicism and an ability to be patient to wait for his moments to shine. There was a sense of frenzied searching that tainted his underperformance on the years 2001-2005, but he was more relaxed with his failings in the last stages of his career. The moments of brilliance that served as a reminder to his golden early years era were very satisfying for true fans of Owen.
In 2005 he revisited his role of Argentina’s nemesis and scored a couple of delightful headers in a pre World Cup friendly to change a 2-1 looming defeat for England into a stunning 3-2 victory. Even though he was way off six feet tall, his heading ability was often underrated and he always had an absolute computer-like awareness of exactly where his body was positioned in proximity to the goal. In some ways he was like a baby-faced version of Eric Cantona. He may not have possessed the Gallic flair of the much larger forward, but his precision and sixth sense of positioning were one of the most underrated aspects of his game.
The last laugh
Owen’s other big passion alongside football is a love of horses, and he divides his time between his stables and his punditry commitments. Although his career had ups and downs and there is a lingering sense of what could have been, we should remember that no one in the history of the game has ever been able to overcome consistent injury problems.
On his retirement press conference he spoke about his legacy and mentioned his international career and Argentina goals most fondly. It is facts such as he was the top goal scorer for Liverpool in every season he played for the team that show he was consistently very good as well as occasionally great. This is the legacy that is the most inspiring for someone who underscores as a relatable icon of our club.