When Sir Alex Ferguson splashed out £30.75m on the Bulgarian love child of Andy Garcia and Mark Strong, the rumblings around Old Trafford were of the second coming of Le Roi. The Cantona comparisons were always unfair and always doomed to be anti-climactical, but as Dimitar Berbatov approaches the end of his second season at Manchester United, few could have guessed just how underwhelming they’d of been. The problem isn’t that he’s been bad, far from it really. His price tag weighs too heavily on him at times because if he’d been a £10m signing he’d actually of done a pretty good job. The problem isn’t that he’s lazy, as is so often, ironically, lazily assumed, because stats show he runs more than most during games. The problem is, mainly, and oddly, Wayne Rooney.
One of the crucial components of a playmakers worth is how much importance you give him in the team. Berbatov is a number 10 more than a number 9, if such limited definitions still hold water. He shines best, as Cantona did, when the team is built around him. When he can be fulcrum of the attack, swivelling and swerving and not actually moving much while his minions latch on to his flicks and scoops and general all round brilliant visionary genius. At Tottenham and at Bayer Leverkusen , he was given this honour. He dictated the attacks were designed to pivot around what he was doing. And he was bloody good at it. At United however, in his first season, he was hustled into a pack lead by another man. A man who was reigning World and European footballer of the year and a man who worked in a very different, almost diametrically opposed way to Berbatov. He was supposed to work with Rooney, but Rooney worked with Ronaldo, those two had a deep and long held understanding based on pace, power and movement. Shock and awe if you were. Berbatov often found himself working much better with Tevez, the man he’d actually shunted out of the team. Tevez hustled like Rooney, but also played more as a central striker, making runs into the box through the middle rather than from the sides as the Roo and Ron show did. Dimitar could dally all he liked whilst old boglin features scuttled around trying to find a gap for him to play him in. To complicate matters more, United had built up this fast paced three pronged red arrow formation-like attacking sequence in the previous season with Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez all darting forward and swapping positions but all set up with their starting positions, left, right, centre. Their 4th goal in this video (at 4.20) is a perfect example of how they worked (try and ignore the fantastic commentary if you can)
Where would Berbatov fit into this system? Well he wouldn’t, he isn’t that type of player, so United either slowed down their attacks at times to accomodate him, and when they didn’t, Berbatov looked woefully off the pace and the slightly unfair illusion that he was lazy was born. Oddly when all were playing together (as the then christened Fantastic Four) they look incredibly dangerous, as demonstrated against Spurs at Old Trafford, but with the natural unbalance of playing 4 attackers, it only really worked in a game, or part of game, where there was no defending to do.
When Ronaldo, then Tevez left in the summer the general consensus among the more optimistic was that this would finally give the Rooney/Berbatov partnership the time it needed to cultivate. That once they’d worked each other out, it would be a treat. Only it hasn’t really, not yet anyway, and Berbatov has again found himself working better with the back up striker, Michael Owen. Owen, like Tevez, is far more content than Rooney to surf around the periphery of games looking for the little spaces. Berbatov loves this, he loved it in Jermain Defoe and Robbie Keane, and he loves it in Owen and occasionally in Rooney. He operates just outside the box and can be a great asset to a speedy front line, so long as he gets there first and can hold it up then back heel it audaciously into their path. Unfortunately a lot of the time, Manchester United don’t work like this, and certainly not when they’re at their most effective.
Rooney has started this season playing as a far more orthodox centre forward. He’s been in the box just as much as he has out of it recently and he’s reaping the benefits in his goal tally. However he still isn’t clicking with Berbatov on a regular basis. Occasionally the partnership can work wonderfully, but it’s still only sporadic and rarely if ever in the important games. Rooney is the man at United now. He’s the one whom all their attacks go through and he still, despite being positioned as a central lone striker at times, likes to attack from the left. Some United fans bemoaned his misspositioning out wide as “wasting him to accomodate Ronaldo”. This wasn’t true though as even now, Rooney naturally drifts out to the left and cuts in again. Watch his performance against Arsenal at the Emirates last week. It was a stellar, world class display, and it was usually orchestrated from the left. He either positions himself slightly left of center and then runs in or runs out to the left to cross or shot from a cut in on his right foot. He’s also all over the bloody shop. He works tirelessly in the final third, often trying to be the starter, finisher and middle man in moves. Berbatov, for all his skill and craft, is often made a little redundant by this. The team isn’t working to his instructions, they’re working to Rooney’s and he’s having to go along with it.
At the Emirates United played their best football in almost a year, their best since possibly their last trip to the stadium in the Champions League last season. Both victories were achieved without Berbatov and done using the United home brand trademarked counter attack. It also seems that the penny has dropped for Ferguson. He sets up for most of the big ties with this approach in mind, even doing so (although admittedly disasterously) in the biggest of all, the Champions League final last year. So where does the future lie for the Rooney/Berbatov experiment? One of the clear advantages Fergie has over Wenger is his ability to adapt to the opposition, and for this reason Dimitar is still a hugely worthwhile player for United’s cause. But if he isn’t going to start the big games, and doesn’t fit the way United play their best football, is it time he gives up the ghost with regard to this being the main, preferred partnership?
Ferguson clearly knows more than me, and he’s rarely one to tolerate things that don’t work for long, and with Berbatov suffering from injury for much of this season it’s unfair to judge him too harshly so far. The lad is clearly an exceptionally exciting player, that isn’t in doubt. What is in doubt, is whether he works for Manchester United and, importantly, whether he works for Rooney. If the partnership doesn’t find fruition soon, and almost certainly by next season, then it could be time to call a halt to the experiment once and for all.