There’s an old mathematical joke that goes, “there are 10 types of people in the world – those who understand binary, and those who don’t.” On Planet Football, there are 10 types of people, and nine of them don’t understand Dimitar Berbatov.
Critics of Berbatov point to his inconsistent goalscoring record, his laziness, his lack of pace and seemingly his lack of care about football. But are these valid points?
Firstly, it must be noted that “doesn’t score enough” has changed to “doesn’t score consistently”. Goalposts are changed so frequently with Berbatov you begin to wonder whether some have a pre-conceived notion of the Berb, and nothing he does on the pitch can change this. True, eight of his 14 Premier League goals have come from two games, but it must be said that three of these sunk Liverpool in a thriller that will live long in the United memory, and the other five destroyed Blackburn in a performance that gave Ferguson’s men much-needed confidence as they kick into a tough December schedule. “When was the last time United really put a team to the sword – when Tevéz was in the team” was a refrain form Berbatov’s detractors. The performance against Blackburn – with Berbatov at the fulcrum – shows us that United can kill teams with Berbatov. In September, Berbatov was magnificent against West Ham, however others around him were not on his sparkling wavelength, and so a potential ‘Blackburn’ became simply a 3-0 stroll.
Never before has a player had his price tag quoted so much against him, so much so that for a while, there was a danger of his tomb stone being engraved Dimitar “£30.75m” Berbatov. Even Robinho, who did half at City of what Berbatov has done at United for £1.25m more hasn’t had it levelled against him as much. His off days, which were accepted at Spurs in the face of his brilliance on other days, were highlighted and casitgated, inevitably with “you expect more for £30m”. Yes, Berbatov’s price was inflated, due to a bidding war with Man City, and essentially compensation for tapping him up. Is this Berbatov’s fault? Of course not, yet it was thrown in his face at every single opportunity. His first season at United disappointed those who quivered at his YouTube highlights, marvelled at the stories of his enigma and cultured personality and whispered “Cantona?”. However, was it really that bad? Nine Premier League goals was doubtless disappointing compared to his 15 the previous season for Spurs, but 10 assists left him as the second top assister in the league. It must also be noted that he played 500 less minutes at United, as well as playing in a more withdrawn second striker role with Rooney at the centre of most United attacks. Moments of genius such as that piece of skill against West Ham and crucial goals like the 90th minute winner at Bolton showed how valuable he could be.
Berbatov’s second season at United has become one of the most underrated season of recent times. Despite spending two months out with injuries, Berbatov managed 12 Premier League goals – the highest of any second striker in the league. Crucial and brilliant goals against Sunderland and Blackburn led to fans and commentators alike proclaiming “now we are seeing the real Berbatov”.
However, injury to Wayne Rooney in March against Bayern Munich killed Berbatov. He was often placed up front on his own, or else with a clearly unfit Rooney, and United missed their up-to-then brilliant partnership, crashing out of Europe and blowing the Premier League. Berbatov took the brunt of the blame and suddenly his season had been a disaster, and he had to be sold.
Ferguson, once again proving himself to be wiser than the baying mob, kept faith in the Bulgarian, and Berbatov started this season like a house on fire. An excellent pre-season, followed by nothing short of magnificence against Chelsea, Newcastle, Fulham, West Ham, Everton and Liverpool saw Berbatov shoot to the top of the goalscoring charts and back into the hearts of the United fans. However, Rooney’s ankle flared up again and the goals dried up for Berbatov. Not necessarily performance though, in seven of his ten goal-free games he was very good – only playing poorly against Tottenham and Bursaspor – and largely anonymous against Valencia through not much fault of his own. But suddenly due to his lack of goals he was ‘Lazy Berbatov’ instead. Again, an unfair stigma – he has tracked back well this season, and covered good distance in most matches. Against Rangers last week he sprinted back to win two challenges deep in his own half. He started and finished the move for the fourth goal against Blackburn, covering a good 90 yards in the process. He’s no Carlos Tevéz, but then again, should United fans really want him to be?
Tevéz for all the plaudits he is rightly getting these days, was an average second striker at United, often lacking the quality or the nous to play in this position. He would frequently misplace passes, fluff great scoring chances, or be out of position due to chasing the ball – all traits which could be said to be more annoying than not covering marathon distances during games. He has improved no end at City, primarily because he’s playing in a different position, which he’s better at, and also is the main man – as a confidence player this is important for him. However pining for the player he is now is no good – he was never that player at United and was never going to be. Berbatov is having the season now that Tévez never had at United, and is a more harmonious dressing room presence to boot – with Alex Ferguson cryptically referencing Tévez’s moaning in the dressing room when placed on the bench.
With Berbatov on form as he is, this season could well see Manchester United capture that 19th title against the odds, and challenge in Europe. For all his failings in his first two seasons at United – and doubtless there was some – he has been unfairly castigated based on his price tag, unfair comparisons to others and personality traits. By the end of the season, perhaps everyone will recognise Berbatov’s genius touch, exceptional hold-up play, clever passes, and maybe, just maybe his goalscoring prowess. And then, Planet Football will be a better place.