Manchester United had just won the League and Champions League double the previous season. Rooney and Tevez were forming a formidable strike partnership. Yet, the complaint was that they were too similar and that there had to be a different approach too. Enter Manchester United’s new Number Nine. Dimitar Berbatov. When he was signed on deadline day of 2008 from Tottenham Hotspur for a fee of close to 30.75 million pounds, there was little doubt that he would become a success story at Old Trafford. He would be the skill and panache to all of Tevez’s grit and graft. He would be the focus of attack. He would provide that piece of magic and that flash of brilliance at will. Fans were heard singing ‘Ooh! Aah! Cantona!’
What has transpired in the following two years at Old Trafford has been a story that is different from the ideal one in many counts. What was supposed to be a match made in heaven has turned into a series of nights of lull interspersed with brilliant one night stands. To say that Berbatov has set Old Trafford on fire would be a lie but to say that he has been an utter flop would be an even bigger one. Here I attempt to understand the complex riddle of what has gone wrong, where it has and why it has; the riddle of the enigma that is Dimitar Berbatov.
Berbatov first arrived on the scene with a fantastic piece of skill at the edge of the box, a small dribble and a cut back to Tevez to score against the old enemy. Things couldn’t have looked brighter but somehow, things did not materialize as expected. Berbatov’s early season performances were encouraging with good performances and great combination with both Rooney and Tevez. It was in mid-October that something happened. El Ron was back.
Having missed the early part of the season with ankle surgery, Ronaldo returned to the United fold and straight away, was thrust into the limelight. Sir Alex increasingly started using the 4-5-1 with Rooney up top but as the games wore on, Ronaldo ended up top and Rooney relegated to the wing. Berbatov was tried in the system but out of his natural habitat and playing in a new team, Berbatov didn’t quite flourish.
There were of course the brilliant flashes, tricks, flicks and backheels but these were few and far in between. When they did come off though, they were a thing to behold. The one moment that really stands out in my memory is that piece of skill in the league game
against West Ham where he did a 360 on the by line and passed it to Ronaldo to score. Pure genius.
As the season wore on, he was being in rotation with Rooney and Tevez and many a time, it was a case of one among the three to partner Ronaldo up front with Rooney out wide. The season ended with a poor penalty taken in the FA Cup semi-final against Everton which drew flak from all directions. 14 goals from 43 appearances was not a bad return but not one that was expected from a 30 million pound man. There were more than 15 assists too but the overall return was disappointing.
The next season came with the departure of Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester City and Real respectively. Michael Owen was signed but he was always going to be the third striker. The stage was set for Berbatov. His time was now. Yet, the season did not go according to the script.
If Ronaldo was ‘it’ in the previous season, Rooney was ’it’ this term. Quickly stepping out of the shadows of Ronaldo, Rooney was given the central role that he always craved and the effects showed. He ended the season with a phenomenal return of 34 goals. Again, it was Berbatov who made headway. Sir Alex again preferred the 4-5-1 in the big games with Rooney being the lone striker. In a 4-4-2, Berbatov did play but with him playing only every other game at best, the continuous run of games that is necessary for any partnership to flourish never materialized. Added to this, there was the lingering knee problem that just would not go away. Berbatov’s contribution was sporadic and although he did finish as joint second top scorer (along with ‘own-goal’) his performances have left fans polarized.
Why has Berbatov not worked? One, he has been playing a different role to the one at Tottenham. In his first season, he played ‘in the hole’ essentially when he was paired with Ronaldo, which his natural position. The one game where United absolutely wreaked havoc was the second half performance against Tottenham, ironically. United scored 5 goals in a 20 minute blitz in the second half, with ‘the fab 4’, Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez and Berbatov playing together. With Tevez, Rooney and Ronaldo playing in a fluid system, Berbatov was free to drop deep, collect the ball, play one-twos and show his entire repertoire of tricks and flicks. It was a sight to behold.
Berbatov’s is not an all-action style; it’s one of style, panache, finesse and skill. He will not chase lost causes. His economy of movement is something that not everyone will understand or appreciate. When he has been severely criticized for his lack of goals and his contribution but that argument has come in from quarters that do not really look at his other contribution to the way United play when he’s in the squad.
When he drops deep, invariably, he draws 2 defenders towards him. This opens up space for the others to exploit. He seems to hold on to the ball for a lot longer than necessary but all that while, he draws more defenders onto himself, thereby opening up more spaces and hence making the opposition lose their shape. Berbatov thrives on the ‘give-n-go’ system where he gives it and expects it back immediately. The game against Tottenham is case in point. At United, this has not been the case most of the time. Admittedly, he has not got himself into goal scoring situations, or ‘at the end of the cross’ enough but that must not be the sole criterion to judge the man.
At Tottenham, he was the pivot around which the team operated. He was the lynchpin in attack and all moves went through him. His style is usually to drop deep, keep the ball, make a quick pass and get the ball back. At United, he has been doing the first three parts but seldom does he get the ball back immediately. Usually, Fletcher or Carrick or Scholes receive the ball and look to the wings to expand play rather than giving it back to Berbatov and build play more centrally. Now, I’m not in the least suggesting that this system is wrong and detrimental but merely stating the difference in the styles between United and Tottenham.
Another factor that influences Berbatov is confidence. He’s a form player who, when high on confidence, will pull off some of the most outrageous pieces of skill but when low on confidence, will look like a sorry man ambling on the pitch without any sense of direction. Sadly, this was the case on many an occasion this term. This can partly be attributed to his being in and out of the team and partly to the hefty price tag that has clearly weighed him down.
At Tottenham, he was the pivot around which the team operated. He was the lynchpin in attack and all moves went through him. His style is usually to drop deep, keep the ball, make a quick pass and get the ball back. At United, he has been doing the first three parts but seldom does he get the ball back immediately. Usually, Fletcher or Carrick or Scholes receive the ball and look to the wings to expand play rather than giving it back to Berbatov and build play more centrally. Now, I’m not in the least suggesting that this system is wrong and detremential but merely stating the difference in the styles between United and Tottenham.
There are talks of him being let go but I believe that he needs one more season to really prove himself. Next season, if given a fair and steady run in the team, it is very likely that Manchester United will see the best of Dimitar Berbatov. There was a video on Youtube with the title ‘Is Fergie looking for a new Cantona’ just after Berbatov was signed. As is quite evident, I am a huge fan of United’s number nine and I’m sure that given time, he can reach the charismatic heights. There can be only one king but he could well have an heir.