The Michael Owen enigma
For a man whose public utterances long seemed to be the definition of blandness, Michael Owen has a remarkable gift for polarising opinions. Men of the stature of Fabio Capello and Sir Alex Ferguson have drawn very different conclusions and, as the striker's first season at Manchester United is curtailed prematurely, each could consider himself vindicated. A player targeted by Hull and Stoke and then signed by the Premier League winners is one whose status within the game is a subject for debate.
If the United manager is being cost-conscious, he can cite Owen's lack of a transfer fee and his comparatively meagre basic wages, with part of his salary dependent upon performance. A season that incorporates a cup final goal, an injury-time derby winner and a Champions League hat-trick is hard to dismiss as a failure; the manner of their execution was sufficient to bring back memories of the younger Owen and suggest that a big-match temperament, essential for a Manchester United player, remains among his attributes.
In addition, a return of nine strikes from just 11 starts hints at the sort of return he produced, particularly for Liverpool, and compares favourably with Dimitar Berbatov's goal-per-game ratio. One instant in September enabled Owen to overshadow his once popular predecessor, Carlos Tevez, and enable Ferguson to talk dismissively about the "noisy neighbours".
The context means he can be deemed a worthwhile gamble. Whatever is insisted by the powerbrokers at Old Trafford about the size of Ferguson's budget, Owen appears a Glazer-friendly addition. Karim Benzema and Tevez did not, according to the Scot, represent value for money. Among the other forwards to join Europe's premier clubs last summer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was still more expensive while Mario Gomez and Diego Milito were scarcely the cheap option for Bayern Munich and Inter Milan respectively.
Ferguson is also entitled to argue that there may be a comparative shortage of goalscorers at the highest level: neither Arsenal nor Liverpool signed one, while Chelsea's only arrival in attack was the untried Daniel Sturridge. Better, perhaps, to preserve his budget and wait for the right player to become available.
Capello's hard-headed pragmatism or, in the eyes of Owen's advocates, bias, has led him to an alternative analysis; it appears to be one where his limitations are highlighted and those who imagine the Owen of 1998 or 2001, allying his goalscoring instincts with searing pace, are living in the past. He can appear prematurely old for a 30-year-old and, the meeting with Manchester City aside, has not convinced as a game-changing replacement.
The Italian has the benefit of a similar striker, in Jermain Defoe, and has perhaps decided that a man who is accustomed to having a team built around him is unsuited to the role of bit-part player. Goals can be a powerful currency, but Capello's fondness for Emile Heskey indicates they are not the only source of value. Ferguson has unwittingly provided examples of Owen's inflexibility: he has deemed the Englishman unable to play as a lone striker and too similar - in positioning, if not ability and overall impact - to Wayne Rooney to operate alongside the younger man. Rooney's indispensability means there is no choice to be made; it also means that Owen can only partner Berbatov or, in the Carling Cup and dead rubbers, United's youthful forwards.
A total of a mere 11 starts is indicative. Ferguson has subsequently said he should have picked Owen more, but fulsome tributes have rarely been supported by his team selections. Public praise and private decisions have been separated by some distance.
Even Owen's finest contributions do not appear to have had a persuasive effect; four days after his treble in Wolfsburg, he was back among the substitutes. Indeed, bench duty, glaring misses and periods of anonymity have punctuated his United career, for all the accolades directed at him by Ferguson.
Then there is the tag he cannot shed which is part of the paradox of Owen. He's not injury-prone, he keeps insisting, and the brochure advertising his services was adamant, but he does have an unfortunate habit of getting injured at crucial moments. The hamstring strain incurred during the Carling Cup final was one such; it leaves Ferguson with an absence of alternatives in attack at the end of the campaign.
Though Owen had proved unable to alleviate his fitness problems, they exacerbated the importance of Rooney, which is a problem shared by Capello and Ferguson. Half-way through his contract at Old Trafford, the verdicts on Owen can vary: underused or underwhelming, finisher or finished, professional goalscorer or racehorse impresario. Neither unmitigated disaster nor unqualified success, he remains a contentious issue.
Capello is content without Owen, Ferguson forced to make do in his absence. He has started infrequently with three senior centre-forwards at Old Trafford but given the lack of alternatives to Rooney and Berbatov, the eventual judgment may be that Ferguson would be better served if Owen were his fourth-choice forward next year.