The languid, elegant striker with the balletic touch looks set to be heading towards the exit door at Old Trafford this summer, with both and manager suggesting he is best served finding a new club, but has the Bulgarian been a success or a failure during his time at Manchester United?
The short answer is a bit of both – Berbatov has failed to live up to expectations and to an extent, he hasn’t really justified the £30.75m fee forked out for him, but his goalscoring record is pretty good and he’s won two league titles in his four-year stay, which isn’t a shabby haul by anyone’s standards.
Berbatov sounded like a man resigned to his fate when he stated last week: “I love this club, but I am not going to be useful to anyone if I am not playing. I want to play, I want to help, but for unknown reasons it’s not going to happen. So it’s better for everyone if we say goodbye. If not, I am professional and I will keep doing everything I can to help my team and my teammates, whenever I have the opportunity to do so.”
Originally bought to add an extra attacking dimension to the at times breathtaking triumvirate of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney, Berbatov sometimes acted as a brake to their more blistering attacks when he was supposed to be the side’s focal point and furthest forward outlet. With Rooney and Tevez both best playing off a front-man and Ronaldo given something of a free role, Berbatov was supposed to act as the tip of the attack, but far too often, he found himself frustrated and went in search of the ball – the sight of seeing him pick the ball up inside his own half was not only frustrating, it was needless.
His record in Europe was also 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, a part-time footballer backed to make more of an impression off the bench – that in itself rather sums up his time at Old Trafford.
Only at Manchester United would the league’s top goalscorer the season before struggle to make an impression the following campaign, and he made just 12 league appearances last year as he fell behind Danny Welbeck in the pecking order. Interestingly, though, he still managed to score seven times in the league in just five starts.
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. Most Premier League bosses would much prefer having a striker that scores once or twice every few weeks as opposed to a player that only deals in bunches and spells of good form and Berbatov lacked that crucial consistency needed for a top-level side.
Of course, that hat-trick against Liverpool perfectly encapsulates his United career, brilliant on occasion, but far too often lacking at the highest level – the caveat of which being that Hodgson’s side were fifth from bottom at the time of the fixture, which fits in just nicely with the flat-track bully theory.
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.
The fact that he is the most expensive player ever signed by Sir Alex Ferguson and that over the last 18 months he has completely lost the trust of his manager would suggest that he was more of a failure than a success – that horror miss in the FA Cup semi-final back in 2010 at Wembley against bitter rivals Manchester City quite possibly proving to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
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 he has not started against a top six club for 14 months now – which just further reinforces the school of thought that he’s not quite cut out for when when the going gets tough against top quality opposition.
His partnership with Rooney never really captured the imagination either – much like his Old Trafford career in general, it flickered into life from time to time, promising much but delivering very little. In Berbatov’s first season at the club, he and Rooney only set up one another to score on two separate occasions, which when you account for the fact that they scored 34 goals between them that year, tells its own story of an unfulfilled partnership.
Berbatov was signed to provide an alternative to the destructive and clinical directness of the rest of Ferguson’s side; a composed force to unlock the tightest of defences, but it’s just not quite worked out for him. The club’s fans are known to be appreciative of an enigma’s talents, Eric Cantona serving as a prime example, but the Bulgarian always remained a hugely divisive figure at the club, splitting the supporters right down the middle. Some castigated him for a perceived lack of effort, while Berbatov rather understandably maintained that his job wasn’t to run around like a headless chicken.
It would seem a tad churlish to label Berbatov a ‘flop’, but things certainly haven’t gone according to plan and he has by and large failed to live up to expectations. The crux of the problem was that he was signed to fulfill a role he was never capable of performing consistently, he was never going to be the club’s answer to Alan Shearer or Michael Owen, a pure goalscorer, more a creative fulcrum to supplement the team’s existing talents and if you judge him with that solely in mind, history will prove kinder to him.
Success is often termed and quantified by something tangible, like silverware, and in that regard Berbatov has been a success at Old Trafford. However, upon closer inspection, setting aside all sentiment and personal stylistic preferences, in pure footballing terms, Berbatov’s four-year spell at Manchester United will go down as a failure. It may seem like a Trevor Brooking-style cop-out, sitting on the fence in such a fashion, but it seems the only fair way of judging his undoubted talent.
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