Despite finishing within one point of Premier League champions Chelsea and landing the Carling Cup, 2009/10 will undoubtedly be regarded as a season of disappointment for Manchester United. Thwarted in their bid to win an unprecedented fourth straight league title, ignominiously defeated by fallen giant Leeds United in the FA Cup and spectacularly vanquished from the Champions League by Arjen Robben’s left foot, fans of the Old Trafford side have flocked to message boards in order to advance their theories as to why the Red Devils’ campaign ended in such “dismal” circumstances. Several theories have been propounded, but the rabid, often apoplectic scapegoating of Dimitar Berbatov would suggest that the ‘failure’ of the club’s record signing to live up to his £30.75 million price tag played a significant part in the club’s unsuccessful bid to trump Chelsea.
The Old Trafford future of Berbatov, scorer of 26 goals in 86 appearances since his move from Tottenham in August 2008, is likely to come under intense scrutiny this summer as Sir Alex Ferguson reassesses his squad in preparation for next season. Many believe that Sir Alex Ferguson may be unwilling to sell Berbatov in order to avoid the humiliating prospect of making a substantial loss on the club’s record signing, but his treatment of former United ‘flop’ Juan Sebastián Verón suggests that Berbatov may not be exempt from such treatment. Recent speculation has suggested that Sir Alex Ferguson may resume his pursuit of French international Karim Benzema, with AC Milan striker Marco Borriello also touted to make the move to Manchester. In light of all of this, how will Sir Alex choose to deal with the Old Trafford enigma this summer?
There seems to be two main schools of thought amongst Manchester United fans regarding the performances of the mercurial Bulgarian. Berbatov’s detractors, who affectionately label him ‘BerbaFlop’ (how DO they think them up?) have lambasted the forward for his laziness, with his performances perceived to be demonstrative of his lack of drive, commitment and determination. They also point to the fact that he has been given two full seasons to prove himself in Manchester, and that he hasn’t been good enough to warrant a place in their squad for next season.
On the other hand, the ‘pro-Berbatov’ camp, assert that the Bulgarian’s critics don’t ‘get’ the player. They point to the fact that Berbatov wasn’t signed for his work-rate, and that his contributions to the team are by way of his stellar link-up play and movement, with these skills compounded by his incomparably divine first touch and technique. Manchester United legend Denis Law has stated that the Bulgarian can still win over his detractors in the face of such fervent adversity, informing the Manchester Evening News that, “He’s always had that laid back style, even when he was at Tottenham and that’s what the fans admired him. But now he gets criticised for it. He had a very successful two years at Spurs where he looked a very exciting player.” Emphasising the belief that a good player doesn’t become bad overnight, many have pointed to his excellent international record (Berbatov is Bulgaria’s record scorer, with 48 goals in 75 appearances for his national side) and his record at White Hart Lane (46 goals in 102 appearances).
A closer look at the way in which Manchester United play offers more of an explanation as to why the Bulgarian has failed to set the world alight at Old Trafford. Due to a general lack of creativity and guile in the middle of the park, Manchester United’s attacking threat generally comes from the work of the likes of Nani and Antonio Valencia down the flanks. Berbatov’s withdrawn style of forward play is not based upon acting as a poacher or targetman, so feeding upon headers and tap-ins originating from crosses from out wide is not suited to his style. In my opinion, herein lies another misassumption of why the Bulgarian has been deemed a flop based upon his goals return. Berbatov is not a traditional ‘number nine’ per se, but more of a ‘number ten’. Due to his aforementioned quality of link-up play and technique, Berbatov is best suited having the ball played to his feet through the middle. Through his vision he can create chances for his strike partner or craft opportunities for himself. United’s system, which is unsurprisingly tailored to meet the needs of the prolific Wayne Rooney, seldom adapts to take account of the Bulgarian’s style.
In addition to this, Sir Alex Ferguson typically favours a flexible interchanging 4-3-3/4-5-1 system in big games. Utilising a lone striker (Wayne Rooney) in this set-up means that Berbatov is inevitably left out. This fact is backed up by the overwhelming statistic that Berbatov has started only six out of 22 Champions League games since his arrival at the club. How can Berbatov’s tenure at Old Trafford be effectively assessed when considering how woefully underused he has been in such important games?
Despite this, the ex-Tottenham man has expressed his desire to remain at Manchester United, informing The Guardian that “I don’t want to leave and I will try to fulfil my contract because where would I go after United? I have reached the top with them.”His recent decision to retire from international football clearly belies intent to concentrate his attention on club football. At the same time, Berbatov has stated that he is “sure the club will buy a new striker”. Given that Sir Alex Ferguson already has six other strikers (Rooney, Michael Owen, Federico Macheda, Mame Biram Diouf, Danny Welbeck and recent signing Javier Hernández) in his squad, the addition of another forward may just signal the end of the Old Trafford road for the Bulgarian. Both Bayern Munich and AC Milan are said to have cast admiring glances at Berbatov, with the player unlikely to face a dearth of potential destinations should he fall victim to the Old Trafford axe.
Although I have highlighted Manchester United’s tactical preferences, Dimitar Berbatov offers brilliant alternative options for when the side’s ‘Plan A’ isn’t working. His talent is indisputable, and it is unfortunate that many seem to have overlooked the moments of magic and brilliance that he has shown at Old Trafford. Sir Alex Ferguson will surely have a lot of problems to deal with this summer, but solving the Dimitar Berbatov quandary may be the most difficult one of the lot.
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