Fox in the box? Fed-up Owen won't score many more playing like this
When Michael Owen returned from injury last month he was supposed to be the man to score the goals which could fire Newcastle clear of relegation peril. One month, five games and two points later, Owen has still to find the net. He has not scored in the Barclays Premier League since January and the Toon are still on the slide. He may be one of the finest predators of his generation but, at White Hart Lane on Sunday, Owen touched the ball only twice inside Tottenham's penalty area. With Mark Viduka and Obafemi Martins fit again and bursting off the bench to inspire a late rally at Spurs, Alan Shearer must consider the unthinkable that dropping his friend and former England strike partner may be the best thing for the Geordie nation. This is far from the only puzzle manager Shearer has to crack before Portsmouth arrive at St James' Park on Monday. He must also identify a left back, find a formation his players understand and inject energy and urgency into a washed-up midfield who are hardly providing the service Owen demands. No point being in the six-yard box if the ball isn't there. At Spurs, the Newcastle manager and his assistant Iain Dowie were not short of ideas, switching systems from 3-5-2 to 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 and barking out a flurry of orders, although whether the players understood precisely what was going on is questionable. In tomorrow's Northern Exposure: Colin Young examines Alan Shearer's options ahead of Newcastle's vital Barclays Premier League clash with Portsmouth on Saturday. According to Shearer, Jonas Gutierrez was supposed to be floating behind the strikers, Owen and Andy Carroll, but was rarely seen in this role. 'In the match, the boss tried to talk to us to get the best out of us,' said Gutierrez. 'He is trying to workwith the heads of the players... to be positive and think we can do it.' Newcastle's three-man defence might have worked at Stoke a week earlier, but the speed and fluidity of Spurs quickly forced Shearer to abandon the plan. Unable to shackle in-form Aaron Lennon, Damien Duff was relieved of his duties as a wing back before the break, only to return for the second half to play left back in a flat back four because Steven Taylor'snagging ankle problem had flared up again. Shearer is not to blame for a transfer policy which meant Newcastlestarted the season with only one left back, Jose Enrique, who now has aknee injury, and he cannot draw on a wealth of managerial experience. But,as one of the great centre forwards of the modern game, he can be expected to have a better idea than most of how to solve the Owen conundrum. Owen made his comeback from an ankle injury onMarch 14 at Hull, where he looked, at best, rusty and, at worst,thoroughly uninterested. With the club plummeting towardsthe relegation zone, Chris Hughton, caretaker manager at the time,quite reasonably decided the team could not afford to carry Owen anddropped him to the bench for the next game, against Arsenal. Days later, after another defeat, Shearer and Dowie were in control and Owen was back in. Echoes of Ruud Gullit, who got the elbow after dropping Shearer 10 years ago. The issue has been complicated by Martins' mystery injury but the Nigerian is available again and threatened more in 30 minutes at Spurs than Owen has in the last month. Martins smashed one in off the post only to see it ruled out for handball, flashed one good chance over, forced a save from Heurelho Gomes and should have had a penalty. Viduka's role at Spurs proved that, although 33 and covering fewer miles than ever, he still has the power and nous to win the ball in the air and hold it up. Shearer knows the value of this unsung role but has hinted at adopting the three-man attack Kevin Keegan favoured at the end of last season, with Viduka and Martins up front and Owen supporting them from deep. But taking manpower out of midfield and exposing a fragile defence is a dangerous tactical development. It is a delicate decision for a rookie boss in a relegation battle but, having failed to sneak a win purely on the euphoria of his return, Shearer must make tough calls. Axing malfunctioning centre half Fabricio Coloccini is one thing, dropping a 40-goal England striker, former team-mate and a personal friend is quite something else.
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