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This is becoming a tournament of personality changes. First there was England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson flipping from conservative to radical overnight, and now there is the curious emergence of Michael Owen’s angry side.
For so long the epitome of media-trained blandness, the striker was in distinctly prickly mood after England’s less-than-convincing 2-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago. Dreadful in the opening game against Paraguay, Owen looked sharper on Thursday without being anywhere near his best.
That, perhaps, is only to be expected, for it is more than six months since he completed a competitive game. He has become almost the forgotten injured man, with Wayne Rooney’s broken metatarsal eclipsing his.
Owen, it appears, having once seemed the messiah, is destined merely to be Rooney’s precursor. Rooney made his Premier League debut younger than Owen, won his first England cap younger than Owen, scored his first England goal younger than Owen, and now, it seems, he has faster healing bones than Owen. Rooney is also a far more rounded player.
Owen has always been slightly one-dimensional, and no matter how important that dimension – scoring goals – is, it does mean that if he is not scoring, his contribution is minimal. Little wonder the 26-year-old these days carries the air that football has let him down.
“I could have probably been more in everyone’s eye by coming short for the ball all the time but I’d be doing a disservice to the team,” Owen said. “If the team isn’t playing well then I’m not getting chances and I’ll probably be the quietest man on the pitch, because I won’t come back and be pleasing on the eye just to get my name in the paper.”
Passing, though, as Eriksson said this week with what seemed a deliberate reference to Owen, is as much about the player without the ball as the player in possession. If the right runs are not being made, space is not created, and so, as Leo Beenhakker pointed out, “the first option becomes the long ball to [Peter] Crouch”.
The Trinidad and Tobago manager is one of the wisest tacticians around – witness his masterstroke in the draw against Sweden in putting on another forward after having a man sent off – but it was almost embarrassing how effectively he stymied England early on.
“Me and Crouchy started with two men in close attendance and a spare man at the back as well,” Owen said. “Even if we did win a header or break through, there was always one other.”
That is true, and the fact that better sides will not be so focused on defending gives credence to Owen’s claim that he will play better against better sides, when there is more space available, but it is also true that the game changed utterly once he went off for Rooney.
Winger Aaron Lennon’s role should not be overlooked in that his pace had the specific effect of forcing full-back Densill Theobald deeper and thus creating space for David Beckham, but Rooney’s impact had a more general relevance. Before he came on, England were, as they have historically been when playing badly, static and predictable.
José Mourinho, the Chelsea manager, has often spoken of the need to “break the lines” – that is, to prevent the defence, midfield and attack becoming rigid strata across the pitch. English football has always struggled both to deal with players who do that, while at the same time being unable to do it themselves, which is one of the reasons Rooney is so important.
He has the spatial awareness to drop deep and take up a position ahead of the midfield, and as soon as he does that it begins to create gaps for others to move into. Owen, by his own admission, cannot do that.
That leaves Eriksson with a dilemma when Rooney is fit enough to start: does he pair him with Owen, or with Crouch, who, despite his misses on Thursday, looks in better form? A week ago Owen would have been thought undroppable, but this has already proved a World Cup at which precedents mean nothing.
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