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A Hungry & Ambitious Owen Hargreaves is No Gamble for Like-Minded Man City

September 2, 2011

One of the most eye-catching acquisitions announced as the summer transfer window drew to a close earlier this week was Manchester City’s swoop to pick up the recently-released former England midfielder Owen Hargreaves. City beat off a host of other Premier League clubs to the versatile and combative midfielder’s signature, but what is that motivated City to offer a deal, and is it really that much of a gamble?

Much like Jonathan Woodgate, who also endured a torrid time with injuries and was released by his club earlier this summer, Owen Hargreaves was deemed surplus to requirements by Manchester United following an injury-blighted four-season stay at Old Trafford. Sir Alex Ferguson admitted that it had been ‘a difficult decision,’ but Hargreaves himself has acknowledged the root cause of his problems: ‘I’ve been out [injured] for three years.’

After three seasons of false dawns and general frustration to the suits who paid his wages (and medical bills), to the boss who wanted to pick him, to the fans who wanted to see him play, and – above all – to the player himself who just wanted to play, it was time for the England midfielder to move on, according to Ferguson, ‘in the hope he will be able to resurrect his career elsewhere.’

Roy Hodgson’s West Brom appeared to be leading the race to claim Hargreaves’s signature, although ultimately what is believed to be ‘a highly-incentivised one-year deal’ with United’s noisy neighbours transpired following a stringent but successful medical. As such it will be in the blue half of Manchester where this attempt at a resurrection will take place.

Undoubtedly, some will question the logic of taking a gamble on a footballer who has only featured in four league games across the last three campaigns, having suffered from both short- and long-term injuries to his knees, hamstrings, calves and shoulders in the process. The argument goes that signing Hargreaves could turn into an expensive lesson against optimism.

However Hargreaves counters such fears, stating: ‘My body feels great and my knees are perfect,’ a view endorsed by renowned knee-expert Dr. Richard Steadman, who has offered an ‘optimistic’ medical appraisal on Hargreaves’ chances of returning successfully to the top level of professional football; in Steadman’s own words: ‘he’ll be fine.’ The former Bayern Munich midfielder has even taken to posting videos attesting to his fitness on the internet in the hope of persuading any doubters.

But those doubters will remain, at least until he can put together a string of appearances for his new club. The risks are there for all to see, but what of the potential benefits? What is it that has enticed even Manchester City – a club that can afford to buy equivalent players with superior fitness records – to even consider offering a contract to a midfielder with such dubious recent history?

On the pitch, the talents that saw Hargreaves prosper with Bayern Munich and England are the same ones that enticed Manchester United to part with around £20m for his signature back in 2007. He excels in the art of ‘keeping the back door closed,’ allowing the creatively-minded likes of Michael Ballack (at Munich), Paul Scholes (at United), and Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard (for England) the freedom to roam forwards and sparkle.

Furthermore, not just a tenacious and athletic ball-winner, Hargreaves is equally adept on the ball, and consequently provides a competent shield for the defence whilst also offering a seamless link between defenders and more attack-minded midfielders – an undoubtedly valuable trait.

In Wayne Rooney’s words, Hargreaves is a ‘different type of midfield player to what we’ve had in England,’ one who helps to bring the best in those around him. Hargreaves himself admits to being ‘the more defensive type of player’ who offers ‘a great balance’ to those further up the pitch, a vital role often overlooked in amongst the Premier League’s penchant for praising and promoting the attacking geniuses on show.

This ‘resilient, dogged quality’ that he was earmarked to add to United’s midfield back in 2007 is what Manchester City will be hoping to unlock once Hargreaves is ‘back into a rhythm of playing football.’ Acting alongside or as cover for City’s incumbent holding midfielder, Nigel de Jong, Hargreaves could present a fantastic defensive platform to complement the obvious attacking instincts of the likes of David Silva, Samir Nasri, Yaya Touré and co. Having proven his talents with Munich, United and England, providing three essentially absent seasons haven’t taken their toll, City might well have unearthed one of the bargains of the summer.

Accolade-wise, Hargreaves won four domestic titles and earned a European Cup medal in his time with Munich, before moving to United and playing a significant role in helping them to the 2007-08 Premier League title and Champions League success in just his first season with the club. Acquiring a player who has tasted both domestic and continental success with two separate clubs could prove a shrewd move as City aspire to such triumphs this season.

For his country, Hargreaves prospered whilst others around him floundered. One of the few successes during England’s Euro 2004 campaign, the then-German based midfielder continued to impress to the extent that he was voted England Player of the Year in 2006, beating numerous more prolific contemporaries such as Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney to the accolade. The addition of a player adept at not just competing at the highest level but capable of standing out is not something to be sniffed at.

And it is this notion of standing out amongst big names in big games which Hargreaves holds as one of his trump cards: ‘I was obviously blessed with athletic ability but my talent is to compete. That’s why, in the big games, I’ve always been among the best players. Better sometimes than the world’s best.’ And he has the performances to prove it.

In the Euro 2004 quarter-final against Portugal, Hargreaves shone for England while a number of his perceived-to-be more illustrious teammates crumpled under the pressure. Not only was he the only Englishman to succeed in the penalty shoot-out, but despite being on the losing team, he was made man of the match.

At club level he has delivered when it counts too. December 2007, and United travelled to Anfield in the midst of a tight title campaign. On such games titles can be decided, and United triumphed in this tense and keenly contested affair with a narrow 1-0 victory. They went on to win the title by just two points, but when it had counted most, Hargreaves was again man of the match.

It was the kind of match in which a player of Hargreaves’ quality shone the brightest,’ remarked the Independent’s Sam Wallace afterwards, as the former-Munich man won a sterling eleven tackles out of twelve [see chalkboard]. Liverpool found themselves unable to ‘pierce a defence […] bullishly protected by Owen Hargreaves,’ as the Canadian-born midfielder swept up all Rafa Benítez’s side had to offer.

Coupled with the match-winning free-kick he scored against title rivals Arsenal that season [see below], Hargreaves has shown himself to be a big game player who capable of delivering under pressure and outperforming more illustrious opponents. Such traits could well prove invaluable to Roberto Mancini’s side in a season that is likely to be filled with numerous proverbial big games.

Finally, the notion of Hargreaves being a financial risk is almost a fallacy. On a pay-as-you-play deal, the club’s only potential costs should his injury troubles resurface would be medical – and in light of City’s affluence, this is hardly likely to prove a bone of contention. Furthermore, would City – given their ability to afford almost any player in the world – really have offered him a deal if their medical staff did not feel he had a chance of playing for the club?

Additionally, in light of UEFA’s impending Financial Fair Play rules, Hargreaves – signed at no cost as a free agent – presents a potential bargain route to securing international standard cover to a number of City’s players, an undoubted coup, especially with Yaya Touré away across January and February for the African Cup of Nations.

The purported gamble being made by City here is minimal. At worst, he barely plays but consequently does little damage to the wage bill. At best, they have acquired an international standard holding midfielder; one who is capable of delivering in the important fixtures and one who has won league titles and continental cup competitions in his past. And to think he might only be a squad player…

Former teammate Wayne Rooney has acknowledged that ‘when he’s fully fit he’s a great player,’ and now that Hargreaves has his second chance in England, the 30-year-old believes he is ‘going to blow people away.’ Not only does he believe he ‘can return to the level [he] was at before’, but he has set his sights on earning a recall to the international fold: ‘I hope to be back in the England side for the European Championships next summer. You have to have ambition.’ Such an ambitious outlook should go down well at Eastlands.

Interestingly, when Hargreaves joined Manchester United back in 2007 he stated the following: ‘A new era is starting for me now and I hope to achieve even more. I don’t have any concrete aims but you have got to win everything at United.’ Substitute City for United, and this view would seem most apt for both Hargreaves and the club he has just joined…

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