Under Capello, only the selfless survive
Why hasn't Michael Owen been called up? Because, like all good strikers, he's too selfish for the new England team.
It happens to every great player. The day they all dread. The inevitable moment you know they are finished as an international footballer.
Bobby Moore’s defensive error against Poland in a World Cup qualifier in 1974. Gary Lineker substituted by Graham Taylor in England’s 2-1 defeat to Sweden in Euro 92. Gazza omitted from Glenn Hoddle’s 1998 World Cup squad. And now Michael Owen dumped by Capello. Darren Bent limps out of England’s training camp and still Fabio Capello won’t call him up. Is this the end of Owen’s England career?
England aren’t exactly blessed with world-class strikers. And Michael Owen is a proven international goalscorer with 40 goals to his name. But you only have to look at Capello’s squad to see how far Owen’s stock has fallen. Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey are now the manager’s first-choice strikers. Peter Crouch, in my opinion, is more circus act than international footballer, but Capello sees him as cover for Heskey as a lone front man. Theo Walcott and Jermain Defoe would certainly be named in the squad if they were fit.
So where does that leave Owen? Evidently below Carlton Cole, Darren Bent and even Gabriel Agbonlahor in Capello’s pecking order. Ouch! Are Cole, Bent and Agbonlahor international strikers? Hardly. How many goals have they scored between them for England? Zero. Or put it another way: if an England striker was through on goal in the ninetieth minute of a crucial World Cup game, who would you want it to be? Darren Bent? Carlton Cole? Gabriel Agbonlahor? Or Michael Owen? It’s a no-brainer really. But all three currently get the nod over Owen. ‘I have to choose the players to play against Ukraine, not against history’, Capello explained. Many interpreted that to mean that Owen himself was history.
So, where did it all go wrong for England’s top striker? Ian Wright thinks that Owen’s England career ‘is in danger of ending with a whimper’ and he blames the gee gees. ‘His career is going down the pan and it’s upsetting me,’ wrote Wrighty in his Sun column. ‘His attitude seems to be all wrong. He has got to realise there is still time enough for him to go out with a bang for England… Michael has got the rest of his life to concentrate on horse racing — something which we all know he loves — but football should surely be his priority.’ (1)
The Times‘ football correspondent Oliver Kay dismisses Wright’s explanation as ‘nonsense’. Writing in his football blog, Kay says: ‘Wright, whatever his talent as a footballer, has proved himself to be a less than perceptive and objective observer in his subsequent career as a television and newspaper pundit. I agree that Owen’s career is spiralling away from him, but to ascribe that to his love of horseracing is bizarre.’ (2) Kay’s alternative and more prosaic explanation is that Owen is not in contention because he is not fully fit. ‘Since suffering an ankle injury in Newcastle United’s match against Manchester City on January 28, Owen has played 98 minutes of football’, observes Kay.
Capello himself has insisted that the door is still open for Owen if he can regain fitness and form. ‘I know about the debate with Owen but I am focused on Wednesday’s game, not players who are not here’, the coach explained. ‘But if you look back, in every interview I have done, I have always said the door is open to every player. The same is true for him.’ Perhaps Capello is laying down the gauntlet to Owen; challenging him to demonstrate the same hunger and dedication that David Beckham has shown in his bid to remain in international contention. Or maybe he’s just too polite to say what he really thinks: That Owen’s a busted flush. That he’s too injury prone and no longer has the pace to terrorise defenders any more. Too crocked too often.
It doesn’t augur well for Owen that when he was fit and scoring goals for Newcastle last year he was still overlooked by Capello for England’s World Cup qualifiers. Even if Owen regains his fitness it seems he will only ever be a bit-part player under Capello. Why? It’s not simply about his fitness and form. It’s also about the way he plays. Owen performs best in an orthodox 4-4-2 formation alongside a big target man. There is, however, a big question mark over whether he can adapt his game to the more fluid 4-3-2-1 system which Capello prefers.
Against Slovakia, Gerrard and Rooney played behind the lone striker, often interchanging positions. To make this system work the two withdrawn strikers must have good movement and make intelligent runs; not just running towards goal but also running to create space. Owen isn’t that type of player. Can he adapt his game to suit Capello’s system? The suspicion is that he can’t. In a Times podcast the paper’s football editor, Tony Evans, said he thought that Capello ‘doesn’t fancy’ Owen because he sees him as ‘another player you have to build the team around’.
Frank Lampard recently explained the team ethic that Capello has instilled. ‘To play as a team and a group, you need to have humility and be selfless’, said Lampard. ‘You need to work for your mate next to you, to play out of position if that’s what is required.’ It’s a well-worn football cliché that all good strikers have to be selfish. Michael Owen’s problem is that, under Capello, only the selfless survive.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.
(1) Owen’s attitude is all wrong, Sun, 31 March 2009
(2) Capello is right: Owen is not fit for country, The Times, 31 March 2009
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