Football: Owen can help fill a deeper void

Hoddle cannot afford to wait for Gazza to dry out. By Norman Fox
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GLENN HODDLE had isolated England's main problem even before the game against Luxembourg began. On the eve of the match he said: "Players have to take more responsibility for getting past defenders." Obviously. But the only one who did it on the day was a defender, Rio Ferdinand, and, for the moment, the only one who has the ability to do it consistently is Michael Owen, whose international career could benefit if his role was changed for the sake of England's thin European Championship hopes.

Owen is indisputably an uncommonly talented goal snatcher, but in the present era of negligible midfield talent his parallel facility for carrying the ball from around the halfway line right up and into the opposition's penalty area and finally delivering a shrewd pass is a commodity England cannot afford to ignore.

Given that his partnership with Alan Shearer has not yet shown more than tenuous signs of becoming telepathic (indeed against Luxembourg Shearer sometimes looked on the point of telling him to "go away") and his appetite for work is making the sullen captain look comparatively apathetic, it would make sense to extract the best out of Owen's youthfulness, enthusiasm and skill on the ball by making him the creative orchestrator of the side. After all, waiting for Paul Gascoigne to dry out is not a serious option and David Beckham's game is more to do with power than exceptional ingenuity, as is that of Paul Scholes, while Jamie Redknapp has yet to answer Hoddle's familiar plea for someone to take a game "by the scruff of the neck".

Curiously enough the games against the leaders of the championship group, Poland and Sweden, will almost certainly provide greater opportunities for an imaginative player operating centrally behind Shearer than we saw against the ultra-defensive Luxembourg side.

No doubt Hoddle would prefer to believe that Beckham, Scholes or Redknapp will be capable of exploiting that chance, but in reality the more likely situation is that England will still be in desperate need of a player who can turn a match with a change of pace or a clever forward pass of the quality Owen and Shearer so conspicuously failed to receive on Wednesday. To say, as Hoddle attempted to do, that the reason for that was the absence of Paul Ince was to overlook a bad-tempered player's tendency to off-load the ball rather than pass it constructively. Placing colleagues in trouble is hardly what Hoddle is demanding when he talks of responsibility.

If, as Hoddle clearly hopes, Ferdinand continues to grow in confidence as an international, there is the long-term possibility of at last having an England player who can perform a genuine sweeper's role.

Should that happen, the need for midfield creativity would become less, but we are talking about a problem that has blighted the last two performances and will remain simmering on the back-burner until next March.

In the recent games midfield poverty was made worse by the failure of both Graeme Le Saux and Philip Neville to create chances out of left-side wing-back platforms, which again emphasised how premature it was to let Nigel Winterburn slip off the international stage because of his age.

Owen's age, 18, may make it seem unfair to expect him to take on the role of England's attacking midfield inspiration but this could be the right moment. He is mature for his years, though, as the Luxembourg coach Paul Philipp said, when you are growing up with so much talent there comes a time when "you stay for a moment". He suggested that Owen had reached a plateau on which he would remain for a while before making more progress.

It could be in Owen's and England's interest to let him gather experience not by asking him to be another No 9 in all but shirt number, but become a talented No 10 in the true tradition of an inside forward. Not only could he do the job, he would be unlikely to leave England yet again regretting seeing their playmaker continually hitting the bar... between matches.