Brendan Rodgers took a swipe at Jose Mourinho’s ultra-defensive tactics after Chelsea’s 2-0 win at Anfield but one player who made his name at Liverpool is prepared to praise the Portuguese manager.
Rodgers likened his counterpart’s approach on Sunday to parking two buses in front of goal as Chelsea shut out a side who have blown teams away this season.
“Jose Mourinho was quite intelligent,” says Michael Owen. “He came to Anfield accepting that Chelsea were the inferior team and could not go head-to-head with Liverpool. He thought, ‘If we play like every other team which come here, we may get beaten and beaten early’. He wasted a bit of time but tactically he had it spot on. His players found a way of defending and waiting for a mistake to hit Liverpool.”
Despite that result, Owen, does not think his pre-season prediction of the title ending up at Stamford Bridge will come true.
“I chose Chelsea because, when you play like they do, it is easier to grind out results. When you play expansively, like Manchester City and Liverpool, it is hard to be at the top of your game all season. But, after Sunday’s result, the advantage has shifted to City. Liverpool can still do it. However, they are going to need a big favour from their neighbours, Everton, [who play City on Saturday] and that is one thing you don’t want to be banking on.”
Talent: Michael Owen announced himself to the world in 1998 with a stunning solo goal against Argentina
Even if Liverpool are not champions, Owen believes Rodgers should still receive a personal honour.
“He is the Manager of the Year, not Jose Mourinho,” says the former England striker who scored 158 goals in 297 games for Liverpool. “It is far more difficult to create an attacking team as Rodgers has done than to create a defensive team like Mourinho has. At the start of the season, even I underestimated Liverpool, predicting a fourth place. People laughed at me and suggested I was drunk. Now, even if they do not win the title, it will still be a fantastic season. Rodgers has been brilliant since he has been at the helm. He talks like a Liverpool manager, he behaves like one.”
But with the Reds conceding 46 goals, which could give City the title on goal difference, surely this is not a Liverpool team Bill Shankly or Bob Paisley would recognise?
“You could say that,” agrees Owen, “But you could also say Rodgers has gone back to the Liverpool model in many ways, in terms of passing, moving and fantastic attacking play.
“When you have attacking players like he has, then inevitably you concede a few more. I don’t think Mourinho has the utmost confidence in his attacking players so basically the majority of time they play to defend. Rodgers realises his best players are attacking players and he’s playing them in the position where they flourish best.
“Not many teams play with two strikers but Rodgers will play with all his attacking players and still manage to get results and a good performance. He is also fantastic in bringing out the best in his players, whether they are great or just standard squad players. Steven Gerrard is, possibly, having his best season and so are Luiz Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. Raheem Sterling has developed into an exceptional young player.
“A couple of years ago, people were laughing at Jordan Henderson. Now they are saying how much they miss him when he doesn’t play which is a great transformation.”
There has certainly been a change in Suarez, who picked up the Professional Footballers’ Association Player of the Year award on Sunday, 12 months after earning a 10-game ban for biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic.
“Suarez had issues last season but he has behaved impeccably,” says Owen. “And on the pitch he has been brilliant. When you look at some strikers, you admire their strength, or finishing ability, or speed, a lot of different attributes. With Suarez, there is not one thing that stands out in his game. He is exceptional at everything
“He can score great goals, scruffy goals. He can score with both feet and with his head. He is strong, he is intelligent, a street fighter. He is probably the best striker in the Premier League since Thierry Henry.”
Despite Suarez hitting 30 League goals in only 31 games this season, none of those has been against Chelsea, Manchester City or Arsenal.
Crossing the divide: Owen is one of a few footballers to have played for both Liverpool and Manchester United
“Suarez has not got the greatest of records against the big three teams but that can’t detract from what a world-class player he is. In terms of out-and-out strikers, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi don’t play as out-and-out strikers, it is between Suarez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.”
Such praise for Suarez may seem almost mandatory from a man ranked 14th in a fan poll of the “100 players who shook the Kop”. But when I ask Owen whether, in his role as lead co-commentator for BT Sport, he has found it difficult to criticise Liverpool, he says firmly: “I am not like that at all. Just because I wore a red shirt does not mean I can’t enjoy good football from another team. I really like watching Manchester City. If Liverpool are not playing well, I will say. I have strong views.”
Whatever his opinions, his approach behind the microphone has not gone down well with many viewers.
“It was a new role for me,” he says. “It is very difficult to be perfect after only a few months. But I am trying to improve and work on different things just as I did as a football player. Yes, I have had training. I would like to think, in five years, I might be a lot better than I am now.
“People make instant judgments and now they have a platform on social media. It is the world we live in. Everybody in the public eye is subject to similar stuff. We have a very good product and, with BT getting the Champions League rights from the 2015 season, we have started something that we hope will be very big.”
Aside from his work with BT Sport, Owen’s other main focus these days is on horse racing as he co-owns a stable.
Saturday sees the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket and Owen is backing Kingman for the first Classic of the Flat season.
Owen has yet to put money on him but says: “I might do something on the day. He is trained by a very good trainer [John Godsen], and is potentially a fantastic horse.”
As for his own horse, punters will have to wait until the six-year-old Brown Panther runs in the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot. The meeting, considered the Olympics of the Flat, should not faze Owen’s horse.
“The Gold Cup is a very prestigious event. The Queen won the race last season. But Brown Panther has won at the Royal meeting before, is a very good horse and in very good form.”
So, will his horse be the favourite? “I don’t know about that,” says Owen which reflects the superstition of a footballer that, to cast somebody as favourite, is to jinx them.
Michael Owen is an ambassador for Qipco British Champions Series, visit britishchampionsseries.com