What makes a flawed genius in football?
Fulham forward Dimitar Berbatov’s form since moving to Craven Cottage has acted like a shot in the arm for all of the observers who doubted him during a largely unfulfilled four-year stint at Manchester United. His nonchalant temperament and mesmerising touch and technique have made him a neutrals favourite once again, and he is undoubtedly a flawed genius, but what ingredients go into making one?
Of course, the first thing we have to acknowledge is that a flaw of sorts above all else is required. Perfection is nye on impossible to find in football, even if Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo both touch pretty darn closely to it regularly for Barcelona and Real Madrid. Whether it be a character flaw, questionable temperament, or that they have an undeniable, notable and somewhat exploitable weakness to their game, these are the main reasons that drive ‘flawed genius’ status, and makes fans love them all the more for it.
Flaws are part of what make us human, and on a certain level, it’s just as satisfying, if not more so, seeing a player like Berbatov bring a ball down out of the sky and beat his man within two touches than it is seeing the consistent brilliance of the likes of Messi every week. These players are capable of scaling the heights in terms of what the game has to offer, but because they do it so infrequently, and in the Bulgarian’s case at times, seemingly by choice, this makes them unpredictable, exciting and enigmatic and you feel drawn in because you witnessed one of the rare memorable occasions when they did turn it on.
Berbatov and Manchester United was always a marriage of convenience rather than a perfect fit and he seems much more at home at Fulham with a manager in Martin Jol who believes in him, just like he did at Tottenham beforehand. The lack of closer inspection benefits him hugely and we can all simply marvel at his occasional mercurial brilliance rather than getting too bogged down in statistics as is often tempting when analysing players which play for top four clubs and have large fees to try and justify. There’s no pressure on him to perform at Fulham which means there’s no pressure on us to judge and evaluate him, which just makes watching him infinitely more fun.
Berbatov’s record in Europe at Old Trafford was extremely patchy – scoring just five goals in 26 appearances (11 as a substitute) and four of those came in his first season back in 2008-9. At one point, he went a three-year period and a stunning 21 games without a goal in Europe. Despite being the club’s top goalscorer in 2010-11, he was left out of the squad for the Champions League final against Barcelona in favour of Michael Owen.
He also earned the tag as something of a flat-track bully, much like Jermain Defoe has during his time at Tottenham, filling his boots when the going was good. In 2010-11, when he managed his best goalscoring season in a red shirt with 20 league goals, he bagged hat-tricks against both Blackburn and Liverpool while hitting five against Blackburn. This means that he scored just nine goals in the remaining 29 league games, which is about par when looking at his form over the previous two seasons.
In 26 league appearances against Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City, he struck just five times, which includes his hat-trick against the Merseyside outfit. The truly telling statistic, though, is that he was left out altogether or forced to sit on the bench twiddling his thumbs a staggering further 41 times against the very same opposition.
He was always something of a square peg in a round hole in Sir Alex Ferguson’s side and ordinarily, statistics such as 48 league goals from 82 starts and 24 substitute appearances are the sort that any striker would be applauded for, but there was always a sense that something was being sacrificed in him at the club.
In eight games for Fulham so far this campaign, Berbatov has already struck five times, created 18 chances and bagged a double against Arsenal at the Emirates. Why wasn’t he able to do this while he was at United? The fact of the matter is that he simply didn’t have the mentality to play for a top side week-in, week-out, but that doesn’t make him not worth celebrating for what he is good at.
Real Madrid legend Zinedine Zidane will be remembered in many parts of the world as much for his headbutt on Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final as as he will for the majestic artistry he displayed on the pitch most games. He always possessed, right through his career, the ability to lose his cool at times, but that didn’t make him any worse a player for it, nor did it hinder him in the same way it does Wayne Rooney, and he was the best player of his generation, who achieved so much, proving that flawed genuises can make it right at the top, even if the drawbacks are still present.
The likes of Georgi Kinkladze, Juninho and Eyal Berkovic should all have been hampered by their lack of height and physicality in the Premier League in the mid-to-late 90s, yet they revelled in their creative roles, adjusting to the tempo of the league fantastically well, while both Benito Carbone and Paolo Di Canio are firm fan favourites because they provided the exotic at a time when teams such as Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham could only dream of Europe. It didn’t matter that they weren’t able to win a game on their own each and every week, what mattered was that some weeks they could.
Former Boca Juniors and Villarreal midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme is another fine example of a flawed genius, simply because he was so incapable of adapting to various roles and styles of play during his career unless it was based entirely around him, but when it was, my word you were in for a treat. His vanity, laziness and the fact that he had such a debilitating effect on certain teams during his career meant he was destined to never quite realise his full potential, but the graceful elegance of him on the ball has rarely been matched in the past few decades, and at his best, he was as good as anything world football had to offer.
The word ‘genius’ is one which is often over-used in the game, and is normally reserved for players of a creative ilk. History dictates that a flawed one must be considered as such because they were capable of becoming the best player in the world, or at least one of them, but never quite had the consistency to get there. This romantic sense of ‘what if’ is usually seen as a sad mitigating factor when looking back on the respective careers of certain players, but when it comes to these figures, it does little more than conjure a smile, and that above all else is their legacy and what they’ll be remembered for.