Michael Owen, Ronaldo & the injustice of recency bias ruining reputations

In Depth

Michael Owen was once one of the best goalscorers in the world – so why is the former Liverpool striker remembered with such a lack of fondness?

Whenever you come to look at a forward’s career, there is only one place that even the most stats-savvy analyst will start: how many goals have they scored?

It’s an over-simplification to say that being a great striker is entirely about goals and that no other metric matters, but there is still some great visceral hunger in us all for the simple purity of goal statistics.

At one time or other, we have all experienced the angst of following a team who can look like Jose Pekerman’s Argentina in the build-up but seemingly don’t have anyone capable of sticking it away. Goalscorers matter, and great ones are hard to come by.

So why, then, do Fernando Torres, Wayne Rooney, and in particular Michael Owen so often feature as punchlines?

Why is the original Ronaldo doomed to be known by many of today’s teenagers – who will never have seen him play – primarily as ‘fat Ronaldo’?

Bell curve careers

As anyone who have played Pro Evolution Soccer’s Master League mode can tell you, player ability classically operates on a bell curve. Players start off not so great in their teens, get better and better with age and experience in their 20s, and then decline as their body begins to let them down in their 30s.

This trajectory makes sense, and it’s exactly what pundits mean when they refer a player being “in their prime”: the wisdom is that midfielders will be at their best at around age 28, defenders around 30, goalkeepers perhaps in their early 30s.

Adam Lallana has risen from playing in League One in his early career to become one of England’s best players at the age of 28. He’s achieved it by adding intelligence and fitness to his undoubted skills: he’s worked at it.

Similarly, Jamie Vardy has earned an excellent reputation for the way he worked his way up from non-league football to win the Premier League at the age of 29.

It’s the classic career bell curve, and when players closely follow this trajectory, we find it easy to judge them in a balanced way.

That’s because when you have a clear idea of how a player should progress, you have some expected standard to hold them to, and as long as they follow that, you can’t really fault them.

A player’s lasting reputation, then, is determined by looking back at where a player started, mapping that against how good they got before waning, and then unconsciously comparing that trajectory with their peers.

Breaking the model

For lots of players, this model works. It’s when the opposite happens that we have trouble analysing it.

A player whose bell curve skews harshly to the left will become a punchline down the pub. And that’s what happened to Rooney, Torres, Ronaldo and, again, especially Owen.

It could simply be that this is down to recency bias: the fact that our minds place greater weight and importance on things that happened more recently.

This means the image of Owen struggling to find fitness at Newcastle and then to get games at Manchester United and Stoke City is much more vivid than the memories of just how unplayably good he was as a young player.

His pace was obviously a huge factor in that, but contrary to his dour image as a pundit, there was a real giddiness to watching him play: the feeling that you were only ever a cleverly-curved run and a through ball away from him sprinting clear and finding the net.

That giddiness extended to the man himself. Owen is understandably mocked for his ‘well done, he’s 13’ celebrations, but that was the cheeky smile of a young man who just bloody loves scoring goals, even if it’s against an actual child.

You might not want to hang out with that guy, but you sure want him in your team.

Bell curve comparisons

To see just how good Owen was, I arbritrarily selected 10 brilliant goalscorers from recent history.

Of course, Owen is knocked into a cocked hat by the original Ronaldo, whose early goalscoring statistics defy all reasonable sense.

But otherwise there is only Robbie Fowler who can match how consistently Owen scored goals as a teenager – not Rooney, not Torres, not Shearer, not Thierry Henry, and not even Ibrahimovic, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi.

There are obvious positional considerations regarding the early careers of Henry, Cristiano and Messi, so it’s not a like-for-like comparison, but Shearer, Torres, Henry and Cristiano all had down years too – they just had them at the beginning (and, where applicable, ends) of their careers. They fit the expected bell curves.

That’s not the case for Owen or even, to a lesser extent, Ronaldo.

Time may yet soften our position on them, but it seems tremendously unfair they have become punchlines for so many people just because their brilliance came early in their careers, not later – regardless of their goals-per-game average showing them to be as effective over their entire careers as some of the true legends.

They may well have worked as hard to improve their game as any of their more reputable colleagues, but the nature of the physical gifts and fragile bodies meant their career trajectory was always going to be a downward one, rendering all that effort invisible to the public, who expect to see that familiar up-and-down trajectory.

Perhaps it’s time we alter that expectations. Not everyone fits the classic bell curve – if we can keep that in mind, maybe we can begin to remember elite players at their best.

By Steven Chicken


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