Michael Owen is poised to make his Stoke comeback after another injury lay-off, and, when he takes the pitch once more, the Potters will be hoping that he’ll roll back the years. But it’s not just the Boy Wonder, scourge of Argentina and Germany, who Stoke are looking back to: it’s also the penalty-box predator. Fox-in-the-box, poacher, goalhanger; call it what you will, but this breed, of which Owen was pedigree, is one that, if not quite dying, has to adapt.It’s not long, of course, since Heskey and Owen were England’s go-to strikeforce. But for years, the big man-little man combination has rarely been present at football’s top table. The rise of the false nine has been well-documented, with first Francesco Totti at Roma and then Lionel Messi flying the flag for these impish auxiliary trequartistas, players who play a pivotal role in attacking build-up in addition to striking endgame.
But, though it may be fashionable to deny it, the conventional number nine still exists, at least within the Premier League. Grant Holt manfully leads the line for Norwich. Andy Carroll still lumbers into Premier League penalty areas like a pony-tailed battering ram, if not in Liverpool colours. And Didier Drogba’s strength and aerial power have been key in Chelsea’s recent history, not least in dragging them over the Champions League line last May.
The Owen-type poachers, though, are even fewer in number. Jermain Defoe and Javier Hernandez are only real examples of such strikers in the top half of the table: short, pacey predators who often contribute little aside from providing the finishing touch. Defoe has a creditable return of ten league goals so far, but never seems sure of his place under Andre Villas-Boas, for whose tactical philosophy Emmanuel Adebayor, if only he would achieve some consistency, appears a better fit. Meanwhile, Hernandez certainly has a role to play as one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s enviable striking quartet, but is a specialized, occasionally-used weapon. His singular role is not one that is occupied for the majority of Manchester United games, with Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck all notable for their ability to play across the forward line.
A more technically-focused game across Europe, driven partly by the hegemony of the tiki-taka philosophy of Barcelona, has, from the top level down, discarded the fox-in-the-box. Owen never got a game at Real Madrid, despite netting, on average, every 145 minutes, because of the continental mistrust of the one-dimensional forward. Gary Lineker scored 21 goals in 41 games in his first Barcelona season under Terry Venables, but, when subsequent manager Johan Cruyff brought him into a deeper role, he soon lost his place, unable to exert any influence over games.
Falcao of Atletico Madrid stands out today as the pre-eminent strikers’ striker, an arch-predator whose penalty-box focus has amassed him more league goals than Cristiano Ronaldo this season, with 16 to 13 with half as many shots. But he’s a different kind of poacher – ‘The Tiger’ has many strings to his bow. Like Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, a similar forward, he’s a handful in the air in a way that Defoe can never be, he’s also two-footed in a way that would put Michael Owen to shame, and he’s even started scoring free kicks too, curling one into the Real Sociedad net from range last month.
So, for the footballing world to take note of Owen in the way that it did at St Etienne in 1998, or Munich in 2001, he will have to be a different kind of predator. The way of the false nine is not the only path available to strikers, with space remaining for the unselfish centre-forwards of the Heskey mould, but, at the top level, the only poachers who consistently get game-time are the ones who distil the fine art of goalscoring into its purest form, scoring with more than one foot, scoring from headers, from free kicks, showing the athleticism clear in Falcao’s diving header against Deportivo, while retaining the capability to hold up play when necessary. The penalty-box predator must in this way adapt to survive; the hunter has become the hunted.