The striking penny drops
Two misleading assumptions in football surround Manchester United’s strike pairing Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney; assumptions that have grown despite evidence to the contrary. Yet, something happened at the weekend that hadn’t before – the pair took to the Old Trafford field ostensibly in their ‘correct’ positions.
The widely held – arguably false – view that Berbatov’s role is principally ‘in the hole’ was reinforced last season by Rooney’s transformation to a central striker. There is no little irony in neither striker playing these roles at international level.
Those familiar with this site’s regular podcast, Rant Cast, will recognise this oft-used refrain.
Indeed, Berbatov had led Bulgaria’s attack – until retirement this past summer – and scored 48 goals in 77 internationals as a central striker. The Bulgarian was largely deployed as a conventional striker, albeit one with an outstanding first touch and unsurpassed awareness of space in the box, in two successful seasons at Tottenham Hotspur, with Robbie Keane given license to roam, and before that at Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen.
Not until the 29-year-old’s arrival at Old Trafford did Berbatov more consistently operate in a deeper position, one that Sir Alex Ferguson admitted was the wrong one in the summer of 2009 after a frustrating opening season for the club.
“We were a bit unfair to him last season because we asked him to play too deep,” admitted Ferguson in August 2009.
“We thought that suited him but we were wrong. We realise now he is at his best in the final third of the pitch, where he’s a real threat. We know how to use him this season and he won’t change from that.”
It proved a false dawn for the six-times Bulgarian Player of the Year. Throughout the last season’s campaign, with Rooney often preferred as a lone striker in a 451 formation, Ferguson failed to correct the problem he had already identified, deploying Berbatov sporadically, or in roles not suited to the Bulgarian – deeper when paired with Rooney, or as a lone-forward when not.
Meanwhile, Rooney made his name and continues to thrive for England in a far deeper role than he has ever played for United. The former Evertonian’s flexibility, vision and excellent technique have always lent themselves to the role he now occupies for Fabio Capello, around 15 yards deeper than a ‘number nine’ – Emile Heskey, Peter Crouch, or Jermain Defoe.
Recalling the precocious forward’s debut, aged 17, against Australia followed by a stunning display against Turkey in a Euro2004 qualifier, it was clear from a very young age that Rooney operated with a mature view of the pitch and play around him. It is tempting to suggest that only in England would Rooney’s skills have been harnessed as a lone-striker.
Yet, it is to Rooney’s credit and range of skills that he so seamlessly migrated into the ‘number nine’ role that brought a tally of 34 goals in all competitions last season. But for a serious ankle injury against Bayern Munich, Rooney may even have reached the 40 goal tally achieved previously by Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo in the modern era.
On Saturday, Rooney produced his best performance in a United shirt for eight months, noticeably dropping deeper than Berbatov, producing a series of stunning cross-field passes and linking smoothly with his partner. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian plundered his biggest goal haul in a single game during his time in England.
Coincidence? Probably not.
Tactics are not as simple as heat maps and chalkboards of course and Berbatov’s tendency to roam is still evident (above) and he is unlikely to become a van Nistelrooy-esque goalhanger any time soon. But intuitively, Rooney’s role on Saturday was very specifically deeper than his colleague’s – it paid handsome dividends for both men.
Ferguson’s reluctance to countenance deploying Rooney ‘in the hole’ behind Berbatov as United’s ‘number nine’ is understandable though. Berbatov has not proven himself a reliable finisher – Rooney has – while the Bulgarian’s relative lack of pace is often not thought conducive to playing on the should of the last defender.
Berbatov’s creative eye is also misleading. While the Bulgarian often tops the charts for creating the most goal-scoring chances, it is in and around the box that his technique really counts, not when dropping back towards the half-way line.
On the other hand Rooney, as England discovered during an excellent World Cup qualifying programme – if not tournament itself – thrives in the deeper role.
The question now is whether Blackburn represents a one-off or a permanent change in tack from United’s management.