Why Keegan must play to Owen's strengths

Nick Townsend argues that the Liverpool striker should be one of the first thoughts on the national coach's mind
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The Independent Online

There was a time when Kevin Keegan would have found it easier to escape from Alcatraz than free himself from the self-administered manacles shackling him to Alan Shearer. Though he would never have uttered such heresy, there must have been at least a part of the England coach, which, during the1-1 draw with France, offered thanks to the heavens for Shearer's decision to put family and clubbefore his country's fortunes.

There was a time when Kevin Keegan would have found it easier to escape from Alcatraz than free himself from the self-administered manacles shackling him to Alan Shearer. Though he would never have uttered such heresy, there must have been at least a part of the England coach, which, during the1-1 draw with France, offered thanks to the heavens for Shearer's decision to put family and clubbefore his country's fortunes.

While the former England captain was concentrating on his new son's birth, after having severed the cord with England, the benefits of the liberalisation of Keegan's previous mind-set on attacking strategy were transparent at the Stade de France. Whether Keegan opted for Andy Cole on a unicycle or with Michael Owen in tandem later in the game, they were both preferable to the spectacle of a system restricted to an absurd degree by the presence of Shearer. In his latter games at international level, the Newcastle man should have been eligible for an immobility allowance.

That is not to say it makes Keegan's task at constructing a potent attack any simpler now, such are the permutations. But as he prepares for next month's back-to-back fixtures against Germany and Finland with the claims of Cole, Owen, Robbie Fowler - due to make his comeback after injury for Liverpool reserves tomorrow - Emile Heskey, Kevin Phillips, and the younger contingent, including Alan Smith, to be considered, he can at least now shuffle his pack.

Yet when it might be assumed that the resulting freedom would enable Keegan to entrust England's attacking future to Owen, the coach has been intractable. Having granted Shearer status accorded a deity, Keegan inclines towards the opposite stance where Owen is concerned. While the little 20-year-old toes the party line and recites the mantra about making improvements in his game, he is clearly bridling with indignation.

There was evidence of it in the summer in Euro 2000. We witnessed it again before and after the game against the European and world champions. Instead of his name being in lights, all Owen sees is his number on the fourth official's board as yet again he is withdrawn after the obligatory hour, or dispatched into the fray belatedly, as occurred last Saturday. He is becoming as familiar with the word "substitute" as Pete Townshend. Maybe it is intended as a motivational device, but we are not talking about some enigmatic character; Owen's desire is unquestionable. It may be that in the course of his career he will improve his heading, the use of his left foot and perfect holding the ball up, but for the moment, Keegan should perhaps just settle for the fact that Owen scores goals. This season already his tally includes a hat-trick against Aston Villa - a match watched with some trepidation by Germany's coach, Rudi Völler - and one for England, executed with exemplary timing and precision.

It brings his international record to eight in all for a player who has made 15 starts from 23 caps. Who knows what he might achieve if the ball is delivered to him as a performer of his adept skills demands, enabling him to turn off a defender - in the way Kieron Dyer provided the opportunity for England's equaliser - rather than the hold-up player Keegan apparently expects him to be.

As perverse as his omission was, Keegan's decision to call him into service at the expense of Paul Scholes rather than Cole, makes you suspect that Cole and Owen may be paired against Germany at Wembley on 7 October when Keegan returns to a 4-4-2 or maybe a 3-5-2 formation.

If Keegan perseveres with a lone striker, as he may in certain games, there is, in fairness, a certain rationale for utilising Cole, namely that he is already part of a successfully established attacking triumvirate for his club, with Beckham and Scholes. In that context, familiarity breeds success. Certainly, you could not excoriate Cole's performance against France. He found space enterprisingly and combined effectively with Scholes, but he has his limitations and again, perturbingly, he failed to score.

Though Owen has successfully ploughed a lone furrow for Liverpool, there is no guarantee that such a strategy would prove profitable for England, although the suspicion is that it would. "I prefer to play with a strike partner because I'm used to it," he declared during Euro 2000. "I could play as a lone striker, but people would have to play to my strengths - with midfielders running from deep and joining up; that'd be brilliant - but not as a target man." Nevertheless, Owen's record dictates that, whether as a sole striker or one half of a pair, he should, with Scholes and Beckham, be a first thought in Keegan's forward thinking, not an after-thought.

Elsewhere, the intelligent, resourceful play of Nicky Barmby and Gareth Barry may have solved Keegan's perennial left-side conundrum. The latter may have been exposed on occasions, but he won't face players possessing the scintillating pace and guile of Thierry Henry in every international.

With the rider that an alternative right-sided midfielder must be in place (Dyer is worthy of another opportunity), Beckham exerted sufficient influence in central midfield to warrant a repeat performance. However, he may find a disciplined Germany will permit him significantly less scope, as he discovered in the Euro 2000 encounter at Charleroi. Germany, having repaired their broken spirit with defeats of Spain in a friendly and Greece in last Saturday's World Cup qualifier, will be relishing there-run of the old conflict.

One of Shearer's final significant acts was the winner the last time they met. With his departure, Keegan has some intriguing possibilities to ponder in the build-up to the first World Cup qualifiers. It is to be hoped his final decision won't include wasting Owen's prowess.

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