It’s a question asked not in some evanescent sense but in search of something far more tangible, even though the player’s Liverpool past means Manchester United supporters will take the question either way. But for now it is enough to ponder striker’s worth to Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad, with Aston Villa potentially interested in taking Owen.
After all, of Owen’s 11 goals in a United shirt to date, just two have any significant meaning; his 96th minute strike against Manchester City at Old Trafford and the Carling Cup final goal that brought Ferguson’s side back into the tie. The rest have come in the earlier rounds of the Carling Cup, against relegation-threatened Premier League outfits and, of course, the dead-rubber hat-trick against Wolfsburg in the Champions League.
Indeed, analysis of Owen’s goals – City and Villa games aside – show that only his goal against CSKA Moscow at Old Trafford made a difference to the result.
It’s hardly more than anyone can have expected, with time and injury having taken a toll of the player’s cutting edge that once brought Owen around 40 goals in 80 international appearances. In retrospect Owen’s peak years came between 18 and 23 years old. Today, the player is a shadow of his former self – a squad player on United’s books as much for the economic benefits of cheap labour, as for his output.
With Javier Hernández and Federico Macheda breathing down Owen’s neck, the question is, does Ferguson even need the player in his squad?
This week Owen scored twice against Scunthorpe United in the Carling Cup. Plus ça change. The former Liverpool player has found his level, it seems.
“It’s been a strange start to the season. We’ve played weekend-weekend-weekend and then into a double-header international break so the manager’s kept a similar team through those three games,” said Owen, sounding as if he’s trying to convince himself of his own worth.
“There’s been a lot of us that haven’t played in the first month of the season but now the Champions League’s started, the League Cup’s started and there’s Premier League games all the time so I’d like to think there’s going to be plenty of games coming thick and fast.
“It’s a difficult juggling act for the manager because he’s got young kids that he wants to bring through, then there’s players that have been injured coming back and players that need the games.
“It’s par for the course at Manchester United. But it’s a bit false at the minute because there have been so few games.”
Yet Owen is unlikely to feature any more than last season, when the 31-year-old started just 11 games. Injury permitting Owen will at least be available for the run-in. But with the player rarely featuring in United’s most crucial games there seems no realistic scenario – an injury crisis aside – in which Owen can force his way into the team.
If history has any baring, Owen is the most likely to be injured first. Moreover, the former England international’s very presence in the squad could be harmful to both Hernández and Macheda, each of whom needs games to develop. The same was also true of Macheda and Wellbeck last year.
While it is fair for Chicharito to take his time settling in England, Macheda faces the very real prospect of a third season playing reserve team football. It’s not a good scenario for either United nor the player, even if Ferguson described the Italian teenager as “fantastic” this week.
“Macheda is only 19 and he is doing magnificently,” Ferguson told Gazzetta dello Sport today.
“What a future for the Italian national team when they are both (Macheda and Balotelli) ready together. I am very satisfied with Chicco. He is simply fantastic.”
Fantastic Macheda may become, but if he is not to go the way of Giuseppe Rossi before him, time on the pitch in the United side is the only answer. Owen is a major roadblock to that process. Macheda cannot even be guaranteed a Carling Cup spot in his favourite position, having played on the left-wing against Scunthorpe.
Yet, there seems little likelihood that Ferguson will choose to cut his options this season, with the fee on offer from Villa not substantial. It means another season largely on the sidelines for Owen; another campaign even further away from the first team for Macheda, who may begin to wonder whether it’ll ever happen for him at Old Trafford.