While Dimitar Berbatov’s talent has never been in doubt – at least for those supporters of the more patient bent – the player’s role in the Manchester United squad has been routinely questioned. At times Berbatov has seemed the right player, in the wrong club. No longer, with seven goals already this season.
Indeed, the Bulgarian’s outstanding form may cause Sir Alex Ferguson to reconsider his strategy this season when United faces the toughest of challenges, especially in Europe. It’s a question that Ferguson must answer next week, when United travel to Valencia for the first away Champions League fixture of the season.
While Ferguson has vigorously defended the player – he could hardly do otherwise – the manager selected Berbatov to start just once in 10 Champions League matches last season. The player made it off the bench on just five occasions as Wayne Rooney plundered 34 goals in all competitions.
Moreover, for the first time in Berbatov’s career, he started less than 30 matches in all competitions last season. Form and, perhaps more importantly, Ferguson’s tactical approach in deploying Rooney as a lone striker, and not injury, was the cause of Berbatov’s under-use.
While Berbatov’s output in his two seasons at United to date can be brought into question, United’s weaknesses have also prompted Ferguson to deploy three central midfielders in many games. This is especially true away from home, in Europe or against what the Scot considers the toughest opposition.
The United manger’s change of heart this season has resulted in United deploying two strikers in all but one fixture – away to Everton at Goodison Park just over a week ago when Rooney was dropped during the ongoing ‘hooker-gate’ media coverage.
However, in all probability Ferguson’s about-face will change once again when United faces more challenging tasks in the season ahead – starting with Valencia next Wednesday.
What then of Berbatov’s role alongside Wayne Rooney spearheading United’s attack? Hardly known as an impact substitute, Berbatov has thrived this season in starting each of United’s five Premier League fixtures.
When United travel to Valencia something has to give: Ferguson’s typical three-man midfield for a European fixture, Rooney’s place in the team, or indeed, Berbatov’s. It is almost inconceivable that Ferguson will drop the Scouser.
The question remains then: will Ferguson be ready to leave out his leading scorer, risk deploying Paul Scholes in a two-man central midfield away from home, or fudge the issue by pushing Rooney into an unfavourable left-sided role?
With Antonio Valencia injured until at least February, the temptation to push Rooney wide in a 4-3-3 system must be strong, even though it will inevitably blunt the former Evertonian’s goal output. After all, Rooney may have just one club goal since he injured an ankle against Bayern Munich in March but the devastating output of United’s number 10 is only a scoring burst away.
Away from home the system so often had the effect of nullifying Rooney’s better qualities when it was used liberally through the 2008/9 season. The sight of United’s talisman covering Patrice Evra at left back is one central defenders of the world must enjoy the most.
The alternative is to invite Valencia – or any future opposition of strength – to outnumber United’s midfield in 10 days time; it’s a risk that Ferguson has so rarely taken over the past 18 months.
Of course that analysis says much of United’s strength-of-depth in central midfield. While there is no doubting Scholes’ genius, his ability to play Saturday-Wednesday is limited and the relevant stats show that not only does the flame-haired midfielder run less distance than before but his average position is now squarely within the centre circle.
United, effectively, plays with neither a traditional holding player nor creative force in the final third. It’s a problem Ferguson has recognised but through choice or necessity has managed by deploying an addition body in midfield more often than not. It’s a system the manager will almost certainly revert to again this season.
With Berbatov is such wonderful form, the manager will now be forced to decide what – or whom – to sacrifice for the cause.