There are few debates more intense within the confines of Manchester United’s support than that of Dimitar Berbatov’s past, present and future. Like Marmite and anal sex, Berbatov is an acquired taste. It is a debate that rages still, even though the 30-year-old former Tottenham Hotspur striker jointly leads the Premier League scoring charts.
Should the Bulgarian hit the net against Blackpool at Old Trafford this weekend, and go on to win this season’s golden boot, it will rightly be hailed as a fine personal achievement; one central to United’s success this season. Indeed, Berbatov has scored more winning goals than any other player during the campaign. Quite literally, without the Bulgarian, United could not have won the Premier League this season.
Yet, despite the wonderful talent, dig a little deeper and the player’s record does not hold up under scrutiny. It leaves fans and admirers, including your writer, in a quandary on how to assess the £30 million man’s history at United. The inescapable feeling emerges that for all the wonderful talent on display, Berbatov simply hasn’t delivered on the £30 million promise.
The bare facts are this: Berbatov has scored 21 goals in 40 games in all competitions this season. It’s a fine record at any level. However, the tally includes none in the Champions League nor any against the current top four, unless the Community Shield is generously awarded competitive fixture status. What’s more, of Berbatov’s 21 Premier League goals the Bulgarian has scored against just five teams in the top half of the table – Newcastle, Everton, Liverpool, Bolton and Fulham.
The player’s record this season in scoring predominantly against lower-ranked teams – seven came against relegation candidates Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool – is mirrored across his time at Old Trafford. In fact against other members of the current top four – Arsenal, City, Chelsea – Berbatov has just two goals in 20 games over his three years with United. Include Tottenham and Liverpool in that list, and the Bulgarian has seven in 34. It is not impressive.
Moreover, for a ‘creative’ player Berbatov has just five assists in all competitions this season. It’s a pattern oft-repeated, with just six in 2009/10 and nine the previous campaign. Nani, by contrast, has 18 this season alone.
Then there is the player’s record in the Champions League, which is frankly embarrassing for a man with pretensions to be among the world’s best. True, Ferguson rarely selects the player in the latter stages of Europe’s premier competition. But then again, there is an obvious reason for that – the Scot does not feel compelled to include the Bulgarian.
Is Berbatov simply a flat-track bully, performing against lower-ranked sides but failing to deliver at the very top-level? The creative stats, together with Berbatov’s goal record, mean that it is hard to come to any other conclusion. He is, after all, a truly a ‘world class’ talent, in all that the cliché means, but one with a record that is simply not good enough to justify the £30m transfer fee.
However, if we accept that United simply over-paid for a player who has not delivered Ferguson’s oft-vaunted value then it is possible to view the player in a different light. At a near club-record £30 million Berbatov is a man that simply must deliver game and championship altering performances. He does not, possibly cannot, do it against the very best.
Halve the fee and Berbatov feels less of a square peg in a round hole and more an essential part of Ferguson’s squad system. After all, while the Bulgarian has now been eclipsed by Javier Hernández, balance is an essential part of United’s success. Berbatov offers both experience and an excellent goal return against mid to lower-ranked sides, and a different kind of approach to Ferguson’s other attacking options.
Yet, there will be questions about the striker’s future. This summer is perhaps the last opportunity for United to make a return on the player, who is out of contract in June 2012. Although the Reds have a one-way option to extend Berbatov’s contract to 2013, the player’s advancing age means that a big fee is unlikely to come once this summer’s window closes.
Ferguson is not thought to be countenancing a sale even though he has Federico Macheda, Danny Wellbeck and Mame Biram Diouf set to return after spells out on loan. With Michael Owen out of contract, the Scot is canny enough to know that experience counts for something.
Whether fans will ever see the very best of Berbatov again is doubtful though. Hernández is now Ferguson’s first-choice to partner Wayne Rooney in attack, relegating Berbatov to a bit-part role. That fact also means that United will almost certainly never full justify the huge outlay on a player who is only likely to decline in performance from here on in.