Ten years ago, a 23-year-old Michael Owen was part-way to the joint-highest goal-tally of his career, finishing 2002/2003 with 28 goals in 54 games, taking his Premier League total to an impressive 102 goals in 187 games. Who’d have thought back then that you’d have to fast-forward a decade and 136 Premier League matches to Owen’s 150th goal in England’s top-flight?
The Stoke City striker’s first Premier League goal in almost 18 months – a well-taken, glancing header against Swansea City – made him one of only eight players to have reached that special landmark, alongside Alan Shearer, Andrew Cole, Thierry Henry, Robbie Fowler, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Les Ferdinand.
A fantastic achievement by one of the finest finishers England’s ever-produced, yet it went by relatively unnoticed, dwarfed in terms of column inches that week by the news that Theo Walcott had ended months of speculation by signing a new contract with Arsenal.
Walcott is currently 23-years-old, the same age at which Michael Owen was arguably at the peak of his powers, yet the common perception is that the younger of the two men is only just beginning to show what he’s truly capable of, finally convincing many doubters that he can fulfill the potential identified by Arsenal six-years ago.
Very different in the speed of their development as professionals, Owen and Walcott are similar in other ways. Both made their Premier League debuts at the age of 17, each also went to their first tournament with England in their teens. History suggests Owen handled the ‘boy wonder’ tag better than Walcott, but will it be the latter who achieves greater longevity, despite a similar reliance on pace?
Played regularly through the middle for the first time in his Arsenal career, Walcott has already hit 16 goals in 26 games this season, more than in any other previous campaign. It is form that has once again drawn comparisons with former team-mate Thierry Henry, another wide player turned centre forward by Arsene Wenger.
The Frenchman went on to become Arsenal’s all-time leading scorer, hitting 228 goals for the club – his best tally in England’s top-flight coming at the age of 26 in 2003/04, which actually confirmed his status as something of a late developer. A look at what age some of the Premier League’s finest had their best seasons in front of goal shows why.
Robbie Fowler scored 28 league goals in the 1995/96 season, only turning 21 towards the end of the campaign. Andrew Cole hit 34 league goals in the 1993/94 season, at the age of 22. Alan Shearer was 24-years-old when he scored 34 league goals in 1994/95.
In fact, Les Ferdinand is the only man in the Premier League’s 150-club, not still playing, who achieved their highest league tally over the age of 26 – ‘Sir Les’ was 29 when he scored a career best of 25 in 1995/96, although interestingly, Ferdinand was something of a late starter, only turning professional with QPR at the age of 20.
At the same age, Fernando Torres was approaching the end of his third full-season in the Atletico Madrid first-team. ‘El Nino’s’ best season to-date came in 2007/08, scoring 24 league goals for Liverpool in his first Premier League campaign – by the end of that season the Spanish international had turned 24 and he’s never hit the same heights since.
All manner of theories have been put forward for the Torres malaise at Chelsea, many of them very plausible and there are likely to be many contributing factors, but could it also be that Liverpool sold a centre forward for £50m knowing that he’d already peaked, after playing so regularly from such a young age?
This is where Robin van Persie’s career is fascinating – consistently outstanding over the last few years for Arsenal and now Manchester United, he seems to be improving with age, yet this is a player who’ll be 30-years-old in August. It seems to totally contradict the earlier evidence that centre-forwards generally peak in their early-to-mid-twenties. However, compare the Dutchman’s appearance figures to those of Fernando Torres and it makes for interesting reading. At the end of the 2011/12 season, Robin van Persie had made 355 club-career appearances – Fernando Torres, who is a year younger, had made 452 club-career appearances. If you accept that in a good season, a top Premier League striker would play in around 40 games (all comps), Torres had effectively played almost two-and-a-half seasons more than van Persie (97 games).
Much of that difference can be explained by injury problems that held van Persie back somewhat in his mid-twenties, but could it be that those enforced absences have actually delayed his peak, and will ultimately help to extend his career at the top level? I guess there is no definitive answer, just as it’s hard to say with any certainty why Fernando Torres has suffered so badly at Chelsea or whether Theo Walcott will go on to challenge Thierry Henry’s Arsenal records. Like most things in football, you can only take an educated guess.