Michael Owen has been a polemic figure throughout his career. At 29 years of age many critics claim that he is already past his prime; that his workrate has slowed, his injuries have multiplied and his goal scoring has come to a shuddering halt. Others believe that his best is yet to come; that he has plenty of energy left, that his injuries mostly come down to bad luck and that he is still, statistically speaking, one of the most lethal English strikers around. Owens’ recent transfer to Manchester United brought out all of these differing opinions. However, few people paid attention to the shrewdness and practicality that went into his contract. Though many United fans lamented the signing of Michael Owen, I have reason to believe that his was one of the most intelligent, devious, and lucrative transfers of the past decade.
1. Where Michael Fits In
It may be surprising to hear, but Manchester United definitely needed someone like Michael Owen in order to strengthen their squad this season. With the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo United lost one of their most creative attackers; a player who could score wonder goals when things were going right and nick winners at the depth when they weren’t. Many United fans would be quick to point out that the likes of Wayne Rooney could step up and fill this role, but statistically speaking that does not seem to be the case.
Let’s look at Rooney’s statistics specifically. During the 07/08 season he made 27 appearances in the Premier League. In his two appearances as a substitute, Rooney scored no goals. However, in the remaining 25 starts, he put away 12 for United. Of these 12, none were game winners or savers. Nine came in no contest games (in which United sealed victory by 3 goals or more.)
Now let’s see what Owen did for Newcastle during that same season. He made 29 appearances in the Premier League for the club. In his five appearances as a substitute, he scored one goal-a game winner. In his remaining 24 starts Owen scored ten goals. Of these ten, five were game winners or savers and six came in must-win situations.
Putting two and two together we can come to the following conclusions: one, that Wayne Rooney tends to score when the going is good; two, that Michael Owen tends to create winners out of nothing; and three, that together these goalscoring foils could collaborate to fill the gap left by Ronaldo.
2. The Question of Injury
Most of Michael Owens’ critics have a problem with his physical fitness, claiming that he breaks down too easily and is sidelined by injury far too often. There is plenty of truth to this claim; we need only to look upon his career statistics to see that he is quite injury-prone. However, most of Owens’ injuries have occurred after he made several consecutive starts. It is easy to see that he isn’t up to par with other Premier League strikers on a game-by-game basis, and his critics are right to doubt him in that particular area.
Manchester United have made it clear that they don’t plan on using Owen in such a way. Based on his contract and the first few games of the season it seems Ferguson will be playing him mostly as a sub, in the same vein as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. This is an excellent move. Owen clearly can’t hold up properly if he starts every game, but playing in twenty minute spurts or so will keep him healthy and motivated. Looking again at his statistics, he scores nearly ¾ of his goals in the second half anyways, and his tendency to pick up late winners and equalizers means he is extremely well-suited to the role of “super sub.”
3. The Contract
Most of the genius of this particular deal comes from the contract. Manchester United clearly did their research before handing their offer to Owen, as it is perfectly tailored to maximize his potential while minimizing United’s cost of playing him. Obviously, Owen was picked up as a free agent, so United avoided paying any fees to Newcastle United in exchange for his services. This obviously made the signing of Michael Owen ludicrously cheap, but United refused to stop there. They drafted an intelligent contract built around the concept of keeping Owen healthy, motivated, and hungry for goals.
Owens’ contract is almost completely incentive-based. He will be paid based on minutes played and goals scored. Considering United’s attachment to the idea of playing him as a substitute, he will not play nearly as many minutes as the likes of Rooney and Berbatov and will therefore cost United much less. However, knowing that his paycheck is dependent upon his goalscoring performance will encourage Owen to make the most of every opportunity on the pitch. If he doesn’t score, he won’t be paid. If he does get injured, United will lose nothing, as he isn’t earning much of a weekly salary. In short, this deal was far from a gamble. It was a well thought out plan to gain the services of an experienced striker without having to pay the price tag that would normally accompany him. Plus, Owen is English, so he will help United to comply with the Premier League’s new home-grown player regulations. United cannot lose from this deal. And Owen will only lose if he doesn’t perform-good performances, meanwhile, will win him extra payments and a chance to get into Fabio Capello’s good books before the 2010 World Cup.
This is hardly an adoring ode to Michael’s controversial late winner against Manchester City. It is a testament to Manchester United’s rare moment of financial savvy. In a league where clubs are getting into huge amounts of trouble offering lucrative contracts to foreign teenagers, United managed to secure the signature of an experienced and well-respected player with little to no risk of failure. Even if Owen were to leave the club before the season ended, United still wouldn’t have lost. Their alacrity and astuteness in relation to Michael Owen is what surely makes this one of the greatest-and most devious-signings of this new century.