Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Carrick shared more than a common heritage at Tottenham Hotspur. The fabulously talent pair – Rolls Royce players in a Park Lane showroom – are each under an uncomfortable spotlight. With Manchester United investing £48 million in the pair, Sir Alex Ferguson is right to ask some searching questions of their value.
Carrick’s role in United’s Premier League title wins 2007-2009 is too quickly underestimated. The former West Ham United player’s ability to retain possession while quickly circulating the ball enabled Ferguson’s side to recapture some of the dynamism missing in the previous three seasons.
An unfussy player, the Geordie has long been accused – often unfairly – of failing to influence the biggest games. The rich man’s water-carrier, Carrick’s make-up has never stretched to include the type of dynamic midfield leadership performed so successfully by his predecessor in the number 16 shirt, Roy Keane.
Most supporters – not all – appreciate the distinction, although there is a long-standing suspicion of former Spurs players at Old Trafford. The generalisation that White Hart Lane acquisitions are technically good but struggle to translate their skills on the bigger stage holds common currency.
However, Ferguson’s faith in the midfielder remained undiminished until the early part of this campaign, with Carrick omitted from early season matches.
More to the point, in recent months the £18 million player’s form has waned. In particular, Carrick’s passing – surely his raison d’être in the United side – has lost both penetration and accuracy. The Rolls Royce is more than a little tarnished.
Indeed, United’s ability to retain possession is inextricably linked with poor results in recent matches. Carrick, woeful in Germany against Bayern Munich, warmed only the bench in United’s defeat to Chelsea at Old Trafford last weekend.
Perhaps surprisingly, the scapegoat returned for United’s return fixture against Bayern on Wednesday. Ferguson may live to regret that decision with the Geordie at fault for the Germans opening goal.
Berbatov’s problem is different, with the £30 million striker’s critics sharpening their knives the day he entered Old Trafford nearly two years ago.
While the Bulgarian’s 14 goals in 43 appearances marked an average return for the player in his first season at the club many view Berbatov’s contribution as waning still further this season.
Berbatov’s 12 goals in 37 games this season has included just 25 starts over the course of a long campaign. Indeed, Ferguson’s use of Wayne Rooney as the lone striker in those fixtures he regards as ‘category A’ is now set in stone.
Yet Ferguson denies losing faith in the player who is now little more than an expensive, if wonderfully talented, substitute. The manager’s failure to turn to Berbatov Wednesday left the side without a recognised striker for much of the second half.
“Yes, I still trust him,” said Ferguson today, although the suspicion remains that the Scot cannot bring himself to admit a failed acquisition.
“He is a good player and there is absolutely no reason why we should doubt that. Dimitar he has done well in a lot of games recently but we prefer to play with one striker.
“When we got the man sent off on Wednesday there was no need to bring a striker on because all we were trying to do was go over the line in terms of defending.”
There’s the rub. Although Berbatov’s talent lies undiminished his value to the side reduces by the week. With Ferguson’s devotion to the lone-striker system fixed, the Bulgarian has little opportunity to turn around the doubters.
Could the Bulgarian move on this summer? Two years remain on the player’s contract and United’s typical amortisation of asset values means the club will take between £10 – £15 million from any potential suitors.
Although with transfer funds seemingly highly restricted there is no guarantee that the manager will receive any money from player sales.
However, there is little doubt with Rooney, Michael Owen, Federico Macheda, Danny Wellbeck, Mame Biram Diouf and now Javier Hernández on the books that seven into one simply doesn’t fit.
Berbatov may well come out on the negative side of that equation, with a move away from the club this summer.
Carrick needs five good performances between now and the end of May to convince his many critics that his future is not similar.