United's surprise signing

Michael Owen leaves the Bridgewater Hospital in Manchester after attending a medical test. Assuming Owen stays fit, it will be interesting to see the extent to which he is used by Sir Alex Ferguson.-AP

It may be that Michael Owen can help Manchester United win the run-of-mill matches more easily, so allowing his team-mates to conserve energy for key fixtures in a long campaign, writes Kevin McCarra.

The willingness to sign Michael Owen makes Sir lex Ferguson look as much a collector as a manager. There might already be a cabinet reserved in some museum of football for a player who is just 29. Indeed, it is the throwback quality that makes him valuable to Manchester United. Large as it is, the Old Trafford squad has not contained a proven poacher since Ruud van Nistelrooy was sold to Real Madrid and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's career drew to a close.

Few top-level clubs have such a figure. Hardly anyone else fits that description in the Premier League, other than Jermain Defoe at Tottenham. United must sense the continuing value of these specialists, despite tactical systems that leave scant room for them nowadays. In April, Federico Macheda's two goals for the club to date turned impending draws into victories against Sunderland and Aston Villa.

It adds to the burgeoning lore of the Italian to treat those strikes as if they alone had delivered the fourpoint margin by which United retained the title. Macheda is still a teenager but there was a reminder there that goalmouth experts can never be wholly obsolete. He may be too young to prosper week after week but Ferguson would like to have a predator on hand who is fully equipped. The question now is whether Owen can continue to meet that description. His irrelevance in the closing weeks of last season was alarming.

Alan Shearer, following his installation as manager at the beginning of April, had placed a great emphasis on the impact Owen might have on Newcastle's prospects of survival. The calculation must have been that this emphasis on the player's status would bring out the very best in him. Owen turned out to be incapable of finding the net.

On the closing day of the campaign he appeared purely as an ineffective substitute, in the middle of the second-half at Villa Park, when the side was seeking an equaliser that would have kept them in the Premier League. No one else scored either, and there were far deeper factors in Newcastle's relegation than his difficulties, but it was sobering to see him achieve no more against Villa than complete three innocuous passes over 24 minutes.

Fabio Capello declined to name Owen in the England party after he had recovered from injury in March. Some of the Italian's predecessors as England manager would have included him out of mere habit but he lacked any in-built trust in the striker. Ferguson's circumstances, however, differ radically from Capello's. The United squad is very large and there is no major significance in adding another name.

Owen, if the move works out, would restore the opportunism that has largely gone missing since Solskjaer conceded that he could not overcome his knee problems. For all the efforts of the departed Cristiano Ronaldo, United do not score as freely as they once did. They hit 68 goals in the Premier League last season; the corresponding figure for 2007-08 was 80. Ferguson's team has become more effective in the Champions League by taking fewer risks but ebullience could be permitted on other fronts.

It may be that Owen can help United win the run-of-mill matches more easily, so allowing his teammates to conserve energy for key fixtures in a long campaign. When he was functioning normally, the attacker scored four times in his five appearances during the Euro 2008 qualifiers. Assuming he stays fit, it will be interesting to see the extent to which he is used by Ferguson.

The inability of Owen and Wayne Rooney to dovetail for their country has almost attained comic proportions. They could put in more practice at United but each would prefer to be partnered with a target man. Rooney has thrived for England when stationed close to Emile Heskey.

As it is, Ferguson could continue to use Rooney towards the left, even if the player would rather be in the middle, and employ, say, Dimitar Berbatov to prompt Owen in United's 4-2-3-1 system. That, however, assumes that the newcomer will have a key role.

It may turn out that there is to be no such status for Owen. If he is to be a lone striker, which seems inevitable now that 4-4-2 is all but extinct, he will probably flourish only against weaker clubs when United, as they dominate, get many players forward to support him.

In the tense and tactical contests he could, like Solskjaer, be a specialist substitute who can winkle out a goal. That may be a step down for someone so renowned in his youth but it would constitute a renaissance after four years of decline at Newcastle.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009