It is a name that evokes strong emotions and opinions amongst Manchester United fans. For some, the Bulgarian is the purest form of football – art, touch, grace, and a dash of improvisational flair combine to make a player of unrivalled skill. For others, he is a source of constant frustration; the talent outweighed by the lack of product.
After all, the football world values function over form.
Approximately four years ago, this column – on this very website – pressed a ‘Case for the Attack’. It was noted that 4–4–2 was dead, or certainly coming to the end of its days at United. That United must look to the future. That future was 4–3–3.
Over the next three years those advocating the change felt vindicated as United’s brand of attacking, flowing football with the three pronged attack of Judas Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Wayne Rooney struck fear into the defences they plundered.
Last season, that changed. Dimitar Berbatov was placed up top with Rooney, and while the former Evertonian excelled in a central role, his strike partner continued to frustrate and confound fans. The season, while successful, petered out without a major trophy.
And that brings us to the first criticism of Dimitar Berbatov.
Previously United’s forward line had movement, flair, pace and an ability to move the ball from defence to attack in seconds. Arguably, with Berbatov in the team, that ability has been severely limited. Too many times the ball goes into Berbatov and comes back towards midfield.
Whether lacking in confidence, or unwilling to turn and attack, Berbatov forces United’s attacks to slow and become more ponderous. Possession football might dominate games, but goals change games.
Important goals change games. Against big clubs and in tight games, a goal at a crucial point in the match can flip a game on its head. Too often Berbatov is responsible for the third of three goals, and very rarely the winning goal.
“But he’s in the mix, in the team, and sets the play” fans counter. Perhaps, but others expect a more concrete return for £30.75 million – a match winner no less.
Berbatov’s statistics show four match winning goals in 2008 / 9. A cursory glance of 2009 / 10 found even less.
So after all the doom and gloom – what hope is there for him?
Secretly, many supporters are slowly being converted by Berbatov. His displays this season betray a new confidence. Crucially, there is more movement around him that the Bulgarian can find with his subtle touches and deft passes. Teams clearly fear the resurgent form of Paul Scholes and have defended deeper and wider, allowing Berbatov more space through the middle. His movement is excellent and he is always available for a pass.
Nani has retained his form from the end of last season. Berbatov and the Portuguese winger have combined well on a number of occasions this season – not least against West Ham United, who between them the pair tore to ribbons. Berbatov’s flicks and tricks seem at last to be finding as much function as form.
The striker’s volleyed third goal, from Nani’s chipped cross, prompted United’s players to flood around the striker. He clearly brings something to the team that his colleagues value highly. Sir Alex Ferguson continues to support the player despite the media criticism, so it is clear the Scot sees something in him as well.
Perhaps a new hero is slowly and steadily rising at Old Trafford.
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