Dimitar Berbatov’s smart turn and shot for his ninth goal of the season against Everton on Saturday marked a welcome return for the Bulgarian. The striker’s sublime control and instant finish was a timely indication of the player’s class. But United’s defeat served only to remind the forward that he is now permanently relegated to an understudy role.
The question now for Sir Alex Ferguson is whether United really needs a £30 million striker warming the bench come August?
In many ways Ferguson answered the question this weekend. Although the Scot picked Berbatov to start along Wayne Rooney at Goodison Park, the forward again found himself among the substitutes for recent matches against Manchester City, Arsenal and AC Milan.
It’s really not good enough for a player who cost United an eye-watering transfer fee 18 months ago. But Berbatov’s challenge is far greater than producing better performances on the pitch – he no longer figures in Ferguson’s tactical thinking.
“It’s hard [to include him] when we decide to play three central midfield players,” said Ferguson pointedly this week.
“That’s the difficulty for him. We could have played him in Milan but the threesome of Scholes, Carrick and Fletcher have created a consistency, a level of performance that makes it difficult to change, particularly in those kind of matches.
“Every time I have spoken to him [Berbatov] he understands what we are doing.”
It’s unsurprising though. Ferguson, wary of being caught light in midfield, normally sacrifices a forward for an extra central player in the toughest of games. In recent years the manager has tended towards a flexible front-three, with the Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez triumvirate the most successful version of this system.
Berbatov, entitled to feel hard done by after the manager’s pre-season promise to deploy the Bulgarian international record goalscorer higher up the pitch, rarely plays in his natural striking role for the club. It’s a promise that the Scot has broken with few apologies.
Fans too, wary of an over-cautious approach, are reluctant to accept that United’s default tactical system is to deploy a lone striker. Indeed, United now deploys two wingers in support of Rooney in a more regimented system than in the past, even if the side’s goalscoring has improved on last season.
Berbatov’s reality means it is hard to envision a scenario where the former-Tottenham Hotspur striker gains a place in the team for biggest matches. Should United make the Champions League final in Madrid come May Rooney, injury permitting, will line up as the side’s sole striker.
Surely neither manager nor player is happy with Berbatov’s place as little more than a squad player at United? Moreover, if Ferguson’s long-term choice is to continue with a lone-striker then the Bulgarian will never be it. The player’s tendency to slow down the game is in marked contrast to the effervescent style of Rooney – and that of Ronaldo and Tevez before him.
The is not the first time a wonderfully talented player has failed to fully translate skill into performances for the club. When Juan Sebastian Veron joined in a £28 million deal in 2001, Ferguson asked the Argentinian to break up the greatest midfield quartet United has ever possessed.
Veron failed and left the club after just 51 Premier League matches. Berbatov has played just over 50, and it will perhaps be a surprise if he adds many more to that total.