Dimitar Berbatov essential analysis: Berbaflop or Berbarotica?

Dimitar Berbatov

AUTHOR: – Nik (Guest Blogger)

“Lazy greasy Bulgarian”, “Berbaflop”, “moody and enigmatic” or perhaps “misunderstood genius”, “artist”, “languid”; just some of the phrases or words used to describe the 7-time Bulgarian player of the year, European player’s most popular player of the year (IFFHS, 2010), Premier League winner and Champions League runner-up since his arrival at Old Trafford.

In this piece I’ll attempt to deconstruct some of the myths that have surrounded the player who has now scored 40 goals in 86 league appearances and pose some hopefully interesting theories as to why he has indeed been misunderstood and received perhaps the harshest criticism a player has ever suffered at the club – certainly the harshest criticism directed at an ever-present member of the first eleven.

What is important to note from the outset is that this isn’t a case being put forward for Berbatov being the best forward or striker in Europe – or even that he has never performed badly in a red shirt, he clearly has – but that the very scale and nature of the criticism has been ludicrously blown out of all proportion, is wholly unfounded and at the very least represents a collective lack of foresight from some of the league’s most knowledgeable fans, as well as journalists and pundits.

Fergie’s tactical dilemma

It is 21st May 2008 and a cold evening in Moscow, Chelsea are the opponents in the Champions League Final; Ferguson, aware before the game of a potentially earth-shattering bid for Ronaldo, set his sights on squad regeneration once again. As Tevez was missing yet another glorious chance to head his team into an unassailable lead with the score hovering at 1-0, Ferguson was pondering something quite evolutionary in its thinking: A reversion to 4-4-2, forgoing the fluid 4-3-3 which had served him so well with Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez forming a dynamic front 3.

Fast-forward to midnight on the 31st August 2008 and United fans hesitatingly await the news of Dimitar Berbatov’s imminent arrival. A number of targets were mooted as is always the case, but Ferguson knew exactly who he wanted and, having waited 4 seasons for him, wasn’t going to let anything or anyone (including Manchester City) get in his way.

Surprisingly however, not all fans were supportive of Fergie’s intentions, with rumblings of discontent amongst pockets of supporters about how he was going to fit into the fluent 4-2-3-1 that Queiroz helped develop. Fans such as the guy sat next to me at Berbatov’s very first match – a game at Anfield – for whom the idea of Berbatov coming into the team repelled him as he turned to me and said, “I can’t believe we have bought him, what a waste of money, and where will Tevez fit into the side now?” A comment that was typical of the collective feeling at the time (and some would argue very much still prevalent today).

One reputable daily newspaper columnist concurred:

“The United manager likes his four most advanced players, in a 4-2-3-1 system, to be fluid and interchange positions, making it as difficult as possible for opponents to pick them up…..how will Berbatov fit into this system?”

I couldn’t quite understand why this had become the prevailing notion amongst Reds and indeed the Red media. Though Tevez had performed well in his first season as part of the aforementioned lucid front three, with Ronaldo’s departure on the horizon it was clear that a Tevez-Rooney forward combination was simply not the answer, and that sadly, Tevez had served his (expensive) purpose at Old Trafford. 4-4-2 was back on Fergie’s agenda largely due to the liberalisation of the offside law (and two banks of four defending deeper than usual), meaning that the system no longer posed such potential frailties in defence.

The acquisition of Valencia

In 2009 Ferguson targeted Antonio Valencia as the ideal candidate for the right-side birth vacated by Ronaldo. Not because he had equal talent to Ronaldo, nor because he was equally comfortable using both his left and right foot and able to work horizontally across the final third of the field with devastating effect. But because he was a throw-back to the 90’s and a 4-4-2 system that Ferguson manipulated to his advantage so well using the likes of Kanchelskis and Beckham, both of whom loved to hug the right touch-line and stretch the play in an open and direct attacking approach.

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4-3-3 with Ronaldo (above) vs. 4-4-2 with Valencia (below)

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Berbatov’s link-up play with Valencia became one of the attractions of the season with the former’s ability to coordinate United attacks from a deep-lying forward role ideally suited to the Ecuadorian winger’s attributes. United’s 4-4-2 though direct, often means a deep defensive line which of course includes the band of midfielders, who’s responsibility it is to join the counter-attack at the earliest opportunity. Valencia has benefited from this style of play, and countless times the pair have linked well in the final third in the build-up to goals – Berbatov holding the ball innovatively and patiently awaiting for the attacking options to get up with play.

It is perhaps for this reason that the commonly heard observation at Old Trafford is how Berbatov ‘slows up the play’ – Far from it however, as the ‘false’ 9 role is one that requires an astute understanding of where you are on the football pitch in relation to team-mates, and more, an understanding of when to release the ball at the right time; (Ronaldo for example delayed United’s attacks more often, dwelling on the ball too long at times and setting off on one marauding run too many).

Berba’s creative output

Sir Alex on Berbatov:

“You know it’s interesting – maybe what they’re saying is he’s not sprinting full out 40 yards all the time all over the place in the way, say, Rooney does or Tevez does. I can understand people saying that because he’s a very economical player. He’s like Teddy Sheringham in that way. He drifts into spaces, his movement is off the ball but, when you actually do the statistics, he is as high as anyone in the team….. his pace is very good, he’s got wonderful balance, and he’s got great vision.”

In December 2009 we had former Sky Sports pundit Andy Gray telling us that Berbatov doesnt make any effort to get into the box; Gray was (some might say typically) astoundingly naïve in terms of his tactical offering. Aside from the fact that he didn’t mention to the audience the intricacies of United’s forward line, the example he gave on the giant screen on “the last word” was entirely skewed; Berbatov was shown playing the ball out wide and then ‘casually’ jogging into the box – Gray failed to mention however the four players already approaching the 6 yard area, and none awaiting the knock-down on the edge of the 18 yard area.

It has been a common folly of the British media to pick up on the ‘goals scored’ statistic column of a player though. Only last week Jonathan Wilson commented on this British obsession with goals in a piece on Rooney:

“The obsession with who scores goals is mystifying. The idea that attackers attack, defenders defend and midfielders do a bit of each was outdated a century ago, and yet it weirdly persists; soccer, as the great Russian Boris Arkadiev was preaching the thirties, is a combination game, devoid of discrete roles.”

Berbatov’s creativity then has gone overlooked by many in the public arena. With lots of talk about the impossible pass he made versus West Ham in his first season, he pirouetted on the touchline and shifted the ball effortlessly in the direction of the oncoming Ronaldo, it was in the same fixture the following season that gave a more pertinent glimpse of what Berbatov had to offer United. As the chalkboard demonstrates, Berbatov was constantly involved in the build-up play, and although Valencia and Rooney took the plaudits for some devastating wing-play and cute finishing, once again Berbatov was the catalyst for the break through as he played a delicious outside of the foot ball into Valencia’s path for the first, and flicked an equally lovely cross-field ball into the Ecuadorian’s path, from which Valencia duly found Rooney’s head to score for the second.

Berbatov 2 key passes to Valencia in first 55 minutes, resulting in 2 Rooney goals.

“The strike partnership Sir Alex Ferguson put together in the belief it would be the most feared in the country has started 19 games now, and that is all the pair have managed to create between themselves – one measly goal against the most porous defence in England’s top division. As statistics go, it is an alarming one for Ferguson to consider as he and his players fly to Portugal this morning for the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Porto tomorrow.”

Those were the musings of Daniel Taylor, quite ironic given that Berbatov went on to produce one of his finest performances of the season in that very game, an example of his exemplary tactical awareness and selfless play once again on view. Rob Smyth would comment in his match report:

“The key figure was Berbatov, who had perhaps the best game of his Old Trafford career. As well as adding an obvious class to the build-up, he added a certainty and, crucially, a calmness that United have missed in recent weeks. Berbatov’s heart would not skip a beat if you dropped a marmot in the bath…”

There are however a few unfounded assumptions being made in the assertion that a strength of a partnership should be judged by the number of goals each creates for the other:

1. That partnerships up front are crucial to the overall team performance. Both Rooney’s and Berba’s presence in the starting lineup throughout the 11 game unbeaten streak suggests that it is individual contribution to the team – as well as the partnership dynamic – which is paramount.

2. That the direct assist is a measure of the partnership’s effectiveness. Although the direct link between the two has been sparse, the number of goals scored (from B /R) which has resulted from a piece of brilliance / fine hold up play from either player in the first instance is plenty. If you watch the sequence of games where Rooney scores 6 in 7, Berbatov is the focal point / instigator for at least half of those goals. Re their similarity, either Berba or Rooney are available in the box when required. It must be remembered that Tevez and Ronaldo were part of a 4-man strong attacking quartet in 2008-2009, and so Berbatov and Rooney, though quite obviously the first choice strike partnership didn’t have the luxury of playing the sheer quantity of games as Berbatov-Keane, where the two combined 8 times in their last season.

3. Moreover, the “perfect partnership” is somewhat of a misnomer in my opinion, given the recent tactical revolution that sees a generic 4-4-2 often applied (depending on the pattern of the game) as 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-4, with fullbacks and wide players crucial to the attacking fluency. Moreover, the ‘ideal partnership’ rarely materialises – recently we have seen Rooney-Owen, Keane-Torres, Sheringham-Cole et al not ‘working’ in the slightest. In this transition period it is no wonder that United have failed to score as freely as in the years gone by.

4. The implication that goals scored is the vital statistic. Surely it is the goals: chance ratio that is more indicative of how a team plays and their philosophy? United didn’t meet their usual standards of attacking prowess for large parts of the season, but there were times in the middle of the season where our football was exquisite, and we simply couldn’t find the net.

Have fans overlooked the tactical awareness asset to Berbatov’s game, with the player’s ability to apply the detailed coaching instructions being a hugely beneficial skill in itself? Meaning a player who had scored 96 league goals in 224 games for both Leverkusen and Tottenham, a player who exuded such grace and elegance, was immediately put on the back-foot and has consistently had to prove his worth to the masses.

The Tevez factor

Richard Williams, commenting after the Arsenal game:

“It is harder for a semi-detatched presence such as Berbatov to win their affection – as opposed to their admiration – than it is for a wholehearted type like Tevez, as long as the effort is well-directed.”

A strongly held viewpoint that I have yet had disproved is that Berbatov has come in for the harsh and unwarranted criticism simply because fans’ favourite Tevez was ditched by Ferguson – and ditched he was, only 18 league starts in his second season (as opposed to 31 in his first) and Fergie applying season-long delaying tactics on the contract attests to that.

The favouritism was no more evident than on the final day of the season when the majority of the Old Trafford crowd (quite bizarrely it has to be said) impelled Fergie with gusto to “sign him {Tevez} up”. He was seemingly a journalist favourite too, as with less than 3 months into Berbatov’s first season, Daniel Taylor of the Guardian wrote the following on Berbatov/Tevez:

“There are times when he will beguile his audience and leave them longing for the ball to be played to him carelessly just so he can jab out a leg and demonstrate that Velcro touch. But then there are the days when he pulls on those black gloves, greases back his hair and does so little that it is difficult for fans to comprehend how he can force Carlos Tevez out of the side.”

A staggeringly early conclusion it has to be said, considering that Xmas hadn’t yet arrived (a season, in which Berbatov won the league starting the vast majority of league games incidentally) thus giving him so little time to express himself at arguably the world’s biggest football club. He wasn’t alone of course, journalists such as Paul Wilson, Neil Custis and Steve Howard all pitched in with their own form of anti-united opportunism, even ex-manager Docherty joined the chorus of dissent (had they all pre-judged the move you wonder):

“He {Berbatov} doesn’t seem interested, he should look at Carlos Tevez and see the way he always grafts to win the ball back”.

Tactically speaking, this comment was useless, and the media were bizarrely ignoring the words of Sir Alex and the likes of Queiroz, who, insightful as ever stated:

“He is intelligent, a cerebral player. He is a good team player and Alex particularly likes that. He will bring other players into the game.”

Martin Samuel was one of very few journalists who actually tried to make sense of the situation with a fuller analysis:

“Tevez made his greatest impact at West Ham in 2007 because the goals required to make a difference to a team fighting relegation do not compare in number to those needed at the other end of the table. During the infamous campaign after which Lord Griffiths surmised Tevez single-handedly saved West Ham, he scored just seven goals. As they arrived in a glut, and late, these proved vital, but in number it was a very ordinary return considering his status as a world-class forward with Argentina.…… And £32m is an awful lot of money to pay for a player who is not the marquee name. Ferguson is a fan of Tevez but he has a more realistic idea of his worth.”

And before Tevez apologists prepare their feather and ink, it is a crucial point to make regarding his time at West Ham and United, regardless of his present goal-scoring form at City. Because it was an awful lot of money, and quite simply Ferguson had every right to edge for a better deal for a player that was quite clearly not in Ferguson’s long-term plans.

Samuel concluded by saying:

“If Berbatov employs the demeanour of the dilettante, barely moving beyond a canter unless necessary, Tevez tears all over the field like a local academy kid let loose on his debut. It is easy to see why Old Trafford loves him, just as Upton Park did. Nobody doubts that Tevez’s employers receive a good day’s work; they may feel, however, that Tevez’s owners are demanding a little more than a good day’s pay.”

What must be remembered here of course, is that Samuel is a West Ham fan! Yet again, his insight was relatively unique, making the observation that still holds true: British fans love a trier, there is nothing like a raging tackle to get the adrenaline going. Tevez, his transfer fee on its way to becoming £47m, is of course doing a very decent job now at City having suffered the psychological meltdown at Old Trafford. He has added goals to his endeavour much in the same way that Berbatov has done this season. But therein lies the issue: Tevez brought very little to the side when he wasn’t scoring.

Given the rare opportunity to start in a major game versus Arsenal in the Champions League for example, Tevez looked forlorn and was guilty of squandering 3 ‘unmissable’ chances as United could quite easily have replicated the 7-1 thrashing of Roma; two of the chances came from 6 yards as he fired directly at Almunia both times, and tellingly Fergie seemed to be losing patience, proclaiming after the game: “You’ll pay for misses, that’s for sure”.

Paul Doyle summed it up well:

“Industrious Carlos Tevez’s focus doesn’t look blurred. His aim and touch just seem to be unsure, as was evident as early as the eighth minute tonight when he chested down a ball six yards from goal then swiped at fresh air. The coolness that Rooney radiates when at his best is a quality bestowed on a chosen few – and Tevez isn’t one of them.”

Tevez palpably has more to his game than work-rate, but at City perhaps the difference is that the players look to him to score the goals, as opposed to at United where the responsibility is shared. Certainly, the world’s most successful club football manager thought he was replaceable, and this is the bottom line.

The ‘psychology of crowds’

Nietzsche proclaimed: “Insanity is rare in an individual, but in groups and affiliations, it is often the norm”.

Certainly Berbatov’s unfavourable media attention can be judged to have been a case of this – contagion at football matches occurs where similar minded people come together (i.e. I prefer my striker to run a lot and show passion), and a ‘convergent theory’ can emerge, often without validity. According to Le Bon’s contagion theory, crowds exert a ‘hypnotic influence over their members through collective suggestibility’. It would only take a handful of Berba dissenters in this manner in order for the notion to become the commonly accepted wisdom – which in my opinion has occurred. As we have already mentioned, the majority of fans want to resonate with the players on the pitch, one interesting theory being that fans see in their idols an “ideal ego” for themselves (or representation of their idol). Something I have touched on before now is the Rooney Complex – the idea that whatever the boy touches turns to gold because he is the quintessential British forward. An idea that has mesmerically ingrained itself at Old Trafford with viral-like speed since his arrival: Rooney, the talismanic forward with energy, passion and human touch that resonates so strongly. It figures; why would fans want to aspire to being “lazy” or at best “enigmatic” ?!

There is no doubt also the British obsession with value for money has contributed to the negativity that surrounds Berbatov. Fans continually discuss whether “x player” has lived up to his transfer fee but as the player has no say whatsoever in deciding this fee then this is not really a valid criterion for judgment. Moreover, United are renowned for getting ‘done’ in the market, and the £31m fee was arguably £10m more than the more realistic price. Further, if we flip this round then, are we saying that if he was bought for a paltry £5m, he would be the greatest signing Fergie has made in the last 10 years? Mind-boggling logic.

It should also be noted that no other player (perhaps aside from Carrick and recently Gibson) in the squad has received anywhere near the same level of performance scrutiny. From the scale of the abuse you would be forgiven for thinking that United were the finished product like Guardiola’s world-conquering Barcelona and that each and every player was constantly performing miracles for the team (and not just Rio, Vidic, Evra and van der Sar). Berbatov has performed just fine, despite his languid approach and calm demeanour – and much better on average than most of the other attacking options, just ask Ferguson.

One game that typifies his career at United was the game versus Tottenham in April 2009 (now remembered for the penalty Howard Webb shouldn’t have given) – Berbatov inspired Untied for 90 minutes, working selflessly and bringing others into the game with key passes. Eventually winning 5-2 coming from 2-0 down, the game palpably changed with the introduction of Tevez at half-time, however Berbatov was instrumental in the change in fortunes too – but again, you couldn’t have fathomed this fact from the media reaction (a point I made to Alan Green with gusto).

The game at Ewood park v Blackburn a year later was remarkably similar. With Rooney unable to play, Berbatov, as the story goes, was the ultimate failure as United struggled to break down the home side. In reality however, Berbatov offered a passing master class constantly creating openings for others in the game, none more so than for Valencia late in the second half with a sumptuous through-ball played into the his path on his stronger foot. The chance was spurned, and ultimately United missed out on a 4th straight title, but again we see the power of crowd psychology and a skewed media analysis of the situation – Berbatov was castigated relentlessly in the following days, and a lesser man would surely have crumbled under the pressure.

Berbatov would make only 9 unsuccessful passes versus 23 from say, Nani. The Portuguese also shot on goals 6 times, failing to hit the target with each. In short, Nani and Valencia did not rise to the occasion and did not support the attack, often making terribly poor decisions in a number of attacking scenarios; I am not criticising – they are young players – merely offering the balance of analysis.

Blackburn in April 2010, Berbatov v Nani

This season with 4 goals in away starts but that doesn’t tell the whole story – instrumental in the winning goal at Stoke – it was his mazy and direct run from wide left which dragged the centre half out of position for Hernandez to finish neatly; and at City showing again his fantastic hold-up play and creativity, losing the ball only 4 times all night and testing Hart with a fantastic volley from a cross. He demanded the ball at all times, looked to penetrate, released the ball wide in a timely and efficient manner; another performance that went unnoticed due to his inability to find the net.

Back to the media and Taylor, as we came towards the conclusion of the season, talked about the ‘Bulgarian equivalent of Ringo Starr’:

“……with Ferguson feeling compelled to speak out in defence of the Bulgarian……..it would be difficult for him not to detect the growing disillusion when it comes to the virtual disappearance of a player who was signed, lest it be forgotten, on the basis of Ferguson’s unrelenting and almost obsessive belief that he would elevate the European champions to a new tier of greatness. Sometimes it just does not work out.”

This in April 2009, just 8 months into the Bulgarian’s spell at Old Trafford. A time when the team was in transition, not only losing key players but adapting to the steady reversion to the direct 4-4-1-1 of old; I’ll leave you to decide on the judgment to be had here.

Samuel once again:

“Ferguson whose selections indicated he thought a club with ambition to win the title needed a striker of greater efficiency. Ferguson who frequently preferred Tevez as a substitute. Ferguson who suffered plenty of lip from Manchester United supporters mistaking Tevez’s perspiration for inspiration…….Tevez plays hard, but Berbatov is more effective. The fee that United will not pay for Tevez is roughly what Ferguson pulled up for Berbatov without a second thought.”

That penalty …

The Sun declared:

“His attempted penalty yesterday was a disgrace to a player who cost £30.75m. As he ambled up to the spot, his body language was all wrong. He was either totally over-confident or shredded by nerves. Or didn’t care.”

Rob Kelly from the Telegraph agreed:

“….Instead Berbatov appears to have gone backwards. On Sunday, he couldn’t even be bothered to take his penalty in the FA Cup semi-final shoot-out against Everton properly, languidly shuffling up and gently rolling the ball along the floor to the waiting Tim Howard. The sad fact is, that penalty miss is probably Berbatov’s most significant act in a United shirt, yet he still keeps the superb Carlos Tevez out of the starting XI most weeks. Could the Bulgarian be this season’s most pointless signing?”

The penalty that seemed to symbolise the fans’ feeling to Berbatov in his first season. Yet I couldn’t for the life of me understand what the inference was here. Were the media and a section of the United support honestly suggesting that Berbatov purposely missed? Or even purposely attempted the penalty in a ‘lazy’ fashion? These were scandalous claims and media scapegoating at its most ferocious. One only had to think back to the Tottenham-Chelsea Cup Final in which Berbatov dispatched a similarly nonchalantly-taken penalty – those of us who saw Dwight Yorke or even Cantona chip elegantly into the middle of the net on numerous occasions knew exactly Berbatov’s intention. The abuse he received was beyond the ridiculous – and I was there, directly behind Howard’s goal, as frustrated as any other fan around me for the fact he missed, not for being a ‘lazy Bulgarian’.

The vital statistics

Prior to last season, Rooney scored 12 league goals in consecutive seasons, the same amount of goals Berbatov accumulated last season.

Leverkusen, 1 goal every 2.3 games,
Spurs, 1 goal every 2.6
United 1 goal every 2.1 games*

* This is not meant to be an analysis in hindsight, the 21 goals he scored in his first 2 seasons (a goal every 3 games) from such a deep lying creative false 9 position is still some return; And as discussed above, he was the league’s joint top assister with van Persie (more than Gerrard, Lampard, Fabregas) and top creator of goal scoring opportunities for teammates last season.

In the 30 games in which he’s found the net for United, we have lost just once (away to Everton in 2009/10 where he was subbed with 25 minutes to play at 1-1), with a 75% win record when starting in those games. The team concedes fewer goals too which is no surprise too when we consider the defensive side to his game. In the 12 games without conceding a goal his second season, it is noticeable that Berbatov is the mainstay in attack.

Defensively, again there is a myth regarding his work-rate and how he compares to say a Tevez-like player. Telegraph statistics show that Berbatov made 29 interceptions and 24 tackles in 34 appearances in comparison to Tevez (‘harder worker’) who made 7 interceptions, 11 tackles in 43 appearances.

(An example of his persistence was harrying Richard Dunne into an error that created an opening for Owen to score the equaliser in the Carling Cup Final. Such diligence was a regular sight, though again you wouldn’t believe that talking to some Reds).

Another myth that is commonly circulated is the fact that Rooney is preferred to Berbatov as the lone striker in a 4-5-1 system due to the latter’s inferior talent or ability (it was claimed on numerous occasions that he would be gone in the summer due to Fergie not valuing him). In what is now a squad game, Rooney is merely selected due his pace and defensive capabilities – as well as the fact that veteran Paul Scholes has seemingly reverted to dominating games as he did in the 90’s, thus necessitating the support of a further two midfielders as part of a central three as Ferguson seeks to match the typical 4-2-3-1 formation of most top European clubs.

From false 9 to real 9 – How Ferguson found the solution

“It is the art of tactics,” says Jonathan Wilson, “that is the art of shifting the battle to where you want it to be fought”. So what tactical shift saw Berbatov start to score freely and indeed become the first player at the club since Ruud van Nistelrooy score three hat-tricks in the same season? And what part as the much unloved Mike Phelan played in this transition?

It was a game versus Liverpool on the 26th September 2010 which had me walking away from the stadium, not only in jubilation at the win, but thinking a minor yet significant change in tactical thinking had occurred. Whereas last season, Rooney was used furthest ahead as the ‘9’, scoring 26 league goals in 32 appearances, here was Rooney dropping deep on Gerrard (see chalkboard) and stopping the fullback from advancing when without the ball, and seeking to receive the early ball from Fletcher in and around the half-way line – with Berbatov seemingly glued to Carragher throughout the game.

Rooney heat map v Liverpool varying his approach play

The result was a hat-trick against our most fierce rivals, yet the furor that would surround it did not interest me in the slightest. Berbatov’s over-head kick was a joy to behold as Winter and Wilson point out below, but I was more ecstatic about this simple switch in approach by Ferguson and what it could mean for the team.

Henry Winter on Berbatov:

“Ooh aah, Dimitar. Echoes of Eric Cantona imbued Dimitar Berbatov’s majestic display here and it was not simply the touches of magic conjuring up a glorious overhead strike as the centrepiece of a fine hat-trick. As with Cantona, there are some instants when all the heat and dust of this mad sport, all the controversy and speculation, are stripped away and a moment of pure sporting genius shines through.”

Jonathan Wilson concurred in another column for Sports Illustrated:

“Berbatov a misunderstood genius… Berbatov’s other goal — trapping the ball on one thigh and then sending it arcing over his shoulder and in off the underside of the bar — was a classic of what Rob Smyth has taken to calling ‘Berbarotica’”

We talked above about the reversion to 4-4-2 and how it was a viable solution to Ferguson from a defensive viewpoint, however the benefits of this also apply to the attacking options, with the onus placed on the trequartista and ‘false’ 9 of the team. Berbatov is arguably the most intelligent footballer at the club (well maybe on a par with Scholes) and so it was a natural choice for him to be selected in this position for the majority of games. His link-up play with the midfield and overlapping fullbacks meant that Rooney was free to push further up the field in recent seasons and take the goalscoring plaudits. But of course Berbatov’s influence once again fell under the radar.

The start of season versus Newcastle started in much the same vein, as Berbatov dropped to become the deeper of the two forwards:

But within the space of a few games it was clear that Fergie was slowly adapting United’s approach play. It now seems that Fergie has found the perfect balance between the dynamic 4-2-3-1 and the counter-attacking 4-4-2 as he has merged the systems to suit the players at his disposal. Rooney is once again marauding around the final third (no further please Wayne) causing creative havoc in tandem with Valencia, Giggs, Nani et al, with Berbatov enjoying being the focal point of the attack in much the same way he was at Tottenham. Rooney meanwhile seems to have reverted to the role Berbatov played last year – against Blackburn he was instrumental in the five goals Berbatov scored as he went on to attempt more passes than any other player that weekend – staggeringly over 100!

An interesting point to note at this juncture is that Fergie’s ‘new system’ is very much a fluid one – with both Rooney and Berbatov asked to alternate as the leading ‘striker’ according to the pattern of the game. It is also noteworthy that of the four central midfielders, only Anderson and Fletcher (with Scholes and Carrick sitting, regardless of specific combination) are instructed to join in on the counter-attack, and this may be because Ferguson wants to exploit the width that Valencia, Nani, Giggs and Park can provide as above – essentially meaning that we have a minimum of 6 players joining the attack in a 4-2-4 / 3-6-1 / 3-4-3 / 3-7-0 shape (see diagram below).

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The emergence of Nani

Cue the fastest progression of a premiership player since Frank Lampard – Nani, who seemed to take the rise and rise of surprise acquisition Valencia as a personal affront. Transforming his frustratingly naïve approach play, often lacking in basic positional awareness and decision making, into one of the top three players in the league this season, contributing to a staggering 41 goals in 43 games. It has perhaps been this statistic more than any other which has helped Berbatov re-discover his scoring touch. Great credit must go to Phelan and the coaching staff for this change around, as well as the forward line adaptation. Here we can see a typical Nani performance as he constantly penetrated the Blackburn defence, putting the hapless Chimbonda to the sword on numerous occasions, but vitally, coming inside and varying his approach (Nani has worked hard on his left foot in the last 12 months, and this is now paying dividends in the form of goals and assists).

Nani varying his approach play, often coming inside and looking to link with Berbatov

The emergence of Rafael and the return to form of Patrice Evra (after 6 months of relative mediocrity from the Frenchman) this season has meant United are supported in attacking scenarios by both the wide players and overlapping fullbacks. In the game versus Sunderland this term, both took turns at supporting the attack, whilst the other would hold a solid line with Vidic and Ferdinand when without the ball. Not since the 2007/08 season when Wes Brown was instrumental in the team’s double-winning success have we seen such a consistent fullback pairing to match the incomparable centre-half partnership we have at the club. Fergie deserves credit for introducing Rafael at the right time, none more so than this season after allowing O’Shea to start the early games in order for Rafael to be ‘mentally fit’ and ready to be called upon.

Fullback influence

Berbatov was playing in a team, and in particular, a midfield in transition. Nani was often wasteful and over-exuberant;.Anderson hadn’t scored a league goal until last season. Welbeck didn’t quite live up to Fergie’s billing as a WC2010 star and Owen hasn’t faintly been the answer. In short, Ronaldo’s departure had dinted yet crucially, not crash-landed Fergie’s ambitions of forming yet another title-chasing squad, but the pursuit of 4-in-a-row was an impossible dream, and it should be remembered that we were only a Rooney ankle-injury (and poor marking at a corner) away from a semi-final spot in Europe, seeking 3 consecutive finals – and one point off the league title. Rooney would go on to score a fantastic 34 goals – Berbatov of course played a fantastic supporting role.

In Summary

”We are all aware how good Dimitar is,” said Vidic. ”His skills with the ball are incredible. The criticism he got last year was because he didn’t score many goals.”

Dimitar Berbatov has not been a Ronaldo-like influence on the team’s progression since his arrival, of that we can be sure. However, his subtle influence and creative vision has been vastly underrated in his time in red, and the abuse he has received from the terraces and the media alike has been entirely out of kilter with his efforts and in my opinion, wholly unwarranted. One can accept constructive criticism or the occasional outburst of frustration (we all do it), but the invective and slander aimed at the Bulgarian has reached all new levels or absurdity in recent times.

We can’t blame the media for lacking the foresight of one of the greatest managers to grace the game – one only has to think back to the infamous ‘you can’t win anything with kids’ line to see that they can’t be expected to get it right all of the time. But one can expect an intellectual honesty, and an analysis put forward based on the evidence at hand. What I feel we have seen in the case of Berbatov is a vicious cycle of subjective and emotive offerings from both fans and media alike, which has often resembled tribal one-upmanship rather than objective tactical analysis. Football after all is a sport in which huge emotional investment is made. It is only recently with the advent of fantastic tactical blogging sites such as zonalmarking.net and arsenalcolumn.co.uk (with the help of communication tool, Twitter) that a greater appreciation of the complex (or stunningly simple depending on what stance you take!) game is being conveyed to the masses.

For the Berbatov appreciation society however, his creativity and vision has always been a joy to behold; his movement poetic nonchalance. His positioning on the field often means that he doesn’t have to exert himself in needless harrying and closing down. Once he has the ball, he never relieves his team of possession and always utilises the space well, bringing others into the game with hold up play that hasn’t been seen since Mark Hughes or the great Gerd Muller. Once he releases the pass, he is at once available like the majestic Zidane and it is no coincidence that he has learnt the art of the assist in a United shirt as he recognises the potential and talent around him. In fact Smyth commented two seasons ago that Berbatov had a ‘Cantonese’ swagger, and this statement is looking more and more apt now as Berbatov celebrates his 30th birthday with an improved contract on the horizon, and perhaps, just perhaps, a little love from the fans.

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AUTHOR: Guest Blogger – Nik

33 Comments on Dimitar Berbatov essential analysis: Berbaflop or Berbarotica?

  1. Really too much there for me to make any particularly in depth comments, but the general sentiment I can agree with. I’ve been frustrated with Berbatov often enough and even agreed before the summer that if we’d sold him at a loss it wouldn’t have broken my heart. Of course in hindsight that looks silly, but there’s little denying he was a deeply inconsistent player previously, and it’s yet to be seen this season really how he handles being part of a rotation. With the Rooney issues he’s played a lot and as time’s gone on it’s becoming more evident that he’s a confidence player. Rooney is, and has always been, naturally patchy. With Berbatov it appeared less clear what the problem was on his off days and I now get the impression that he needs to feel appreciated. Not that he’s demanding attention, more that his confidence possibly wilts without it.

    He said he’d spent the summer working hard on both his stamina and his strength, probably in response to criticisms of his physical contribution, but it’s his ability to cap off a team move that’s really improved and I think it’s because we’ve all had to look at him and believe he could lead the line. And that we had to stick with him through thick and thin when Rooney was out.

    I don’t think Berbatov consciously wants to be the centre of things, but I DO think that he’s less effective when he feels unloved if any conclusions can be drawn from his time with us thus far. We know he has oodles of technical ability, and we might now understand what he needs mentally too.

  2. Wow – what a great read that was!
    Have to comment to applaud the author on his extensive research and good argument.

    Berbatov is definitely under appreciated by fans who see the work rate of the likes of Tevez and Rooney as a sign of quality. Sometimes just standing still can create space and help in awareness of others position on the field and he does this well.

    That said, Berba has improved his work rate this season and has been more prevalent closing down opponents which benefits the team. His touch is and always has been amazing as he can bring a ball out of the air, cushion it and then look to supply the next pass with such ease.

    His goal scoring this season has made headlines but his general all round play has been consistently good also and often overlooked.

    We need Rooney back firing for sure and with Champions League coming up again soon, it will be interesting to see the choice of main striker if 4-3-3 is the formation. Rooney will never be comfortable on the left so this should be avoided and he could find himself on the bench. That would of been unthinkable this time last year.

  3. Superb article; insightful and well researched. I’m going to have to read it a couple more times more to absorb all the nuances but its right on the money.
    A few questions, though. Is Fergie rewriting the tactics handbook? 4-4-2 was supposed to be dead but yet this is his preferred formation. It’s not a conventional 4-4-2 because I’ve noticed we play at times a 4-2-4 or an unconventional 4-2-2-2 with at times our furthest two being our wide players i.e. Giggs and Nani.
    I’m a recent convert to football tactics so maybe a bit naive but is Fergie the first manager to attempt to play two false nines in Rooney and Berbatov? Seems that both like to drop deep at times though this season Berbatov is playing slightly ahead.

  4. I agree with the sentiment of this article. Excellent work. But for one para:

    There is no doubt also the British obsession with value for money has contributed to the negativity that surrounds Berbatov. Fans continually discuss whether “x player” has lived up to his transfer fee but as the player has no say whatsoever in deciding this fee then this is not really a valid criterion for judgment. Moreover, United are renowned for getting ‘done’ in the market, and the £31m fee was arguably £10m more than the more realistic price. Further, if we flip this round then, are we saying that if he was bought for a paltry £5m, he would be the greatest signing Fergie has made in the last 10 years? Mind-boggling logic.

    It doesnt matter whether a player has a say in the fee paid for him. The manager does. If you cannot see the relevance of the fee paid for a player to the quality of the signing then nothing written here is likely to rectify that. Suffice it to say I think it is entirely natural and appropriate that the fee be considered.

    One other thing: I wonder whether it would have made any difference in Rome if Berbatov had played. Certainly, in the context of the heat he was drawing from fans and the media at that time, it did seem telling that he did not start. And yes, I remember thinking £30m is a lot of money to spend on a player you do not trust to play in a CL final, even if the system you play made it inevitable.

  5. Absolutely Ian. It is SAF who has to answer for the quality of his signings and the value he extracts from them, not the players themselves.

    That said, this article is in some ways a bit late. I mean, are there any United fans on the other side of this debate now? From what I have seen on messageboards like RedCafe, there arent too many people questioning Berbs anymore. How many people would still be moaning about his price tag? It is a season or more late to be defending it.

    And as per the marmot in the bath comment (and thanks for reminding me of that, what a wonderful quote), Berbs is better placed than most to deal with the pressure associated with such a hefty price tag.

  6. The Druid – thanks for your comment mate. I think you’re right that Berb’s form has turned a lot of fans; but football fans in general are a fickle bunch and I could guarantee you that if Berb went a few games without scoring people would start to question him again. I wouldn’t say I doubt Berb but it’s very hard to ignore his first couple of years. I would hope that if he goes on to get 30 goals this year he could repeat that next year.

    I certainly admit that at the end of November I erred caution right after he got 5 against Blackburn:


    My point then was 5 goals in a game is great but consistent spread out goalscoring is probably better, more important and something he’s yet to do. It’s refreshing to see he is starting to do that. I’m delighted with Berb now but I’ll judge him at the end of the season, I still certainly am cautious in going overboard with praise – I’m certainly not trying to purposely put him down just being cautious.

    The timing of the article isn’t important really – Berb could easily as I suggested not score for a month now at which point the article becomes relevant again. I think in general the analysis is very good and will always have some relevance.

    I’ll always feel we paid about £10m too much for Berb. Always.

  7. @nameonthetrophy
    Consistent as in what? He’s scored consistently enough compared with most forwards this season.

  8. Steve – At the time of writing that article he scored 5 against Blackburn having not scored in 2 months. Back then his goalscoring stats were skewed by that game and the Liverpool game – my point in the article was whilst 5 goals in a game was an amazing achievement, they’d probably mean more to the team if they were spread over 5 consecutive games – it would be very little help if he was to go another 2 months without scoring. As it happens, his form has become more consistent and I’m pleased for that. Now if I was to review that article I’d say what I asked for has been delivered – obviously it has absolutely nothing to do with me – but I suggested that we should want him to be more consistent rather than score a hat-trick then go 2 months without scoring, then score another hat-trick.

  9. I find the whole question of value to be very interesting, to be honest. It is such a difficult concept to pin down, and so subjective. I find it fascinating how animated so many fans (including myself) get about it.
    Ultimately, a player is worth what a club is willing to pay for him. Coming up with a single number for value is completely futile. Two hypothetical and identical players might have completely different values based on the markets they are looking to be sold in, i.e. the circumstances of clubs looking to acquire players at that time. The best striker ever to play the game might not be so valuable in a world where football has gone into a downturn and clubs are tightening their belts, or where there is a freak glut of strikers of comparable – if slightly inferior – quality. Conversely, in a world with the likes of City and Chelsea looking to buy the best players, valuation goes up for all the best players. There is always a United premium for any player, too, as has been pointed out, based on the fact that there are less players around that are “United quality”. Supply and demand therefore dictates that if a player is twice as good, that does not mean his price tag should be merely twice as high. The important consideration is actually how many people there are of that quality, and with those specific strengths, available on the market. Usually the players United are going for are a rare commodity, meaning sellers are free to inflate prices.
    Another factor that interests me about these debates is that we are talking about someone else’s money – money that, whether spent or saved, has no discernible impact on our own lives. I mean, if you wan to buy a pair of shoes one consideration you will have is how much money you have in the bank, and whether or not said purchase will have consequences on your ability to feed yourself at the end of the month, or go out on Saturday night, or be able to afford a birthday present for the missus, or whatever. But the United finances are a closed book to most of us – even those, like Anders Red, who take a close interest in such things. As such, we can never know the affordability of a player in any accurate sense. We can say how much we think we needed a player but this is another degree of subjectivity and ensures conversations in this area are rarely characterised by consensus.
    So after that ramble, which in retrospect seems a bit of a waste of my time but I have written it now so I might as well post it, I will conclude by saying I agree the price we paid for Berbs was steep, but then again you could say the same about numerous other players – Rio, Carrick – who have been integral to a great deal of success. Viewed in that light, can you say we were fleeced? I don’t think so.
    And finally, to draw this all back to the here and now, what of the recent marquee signings of Chelsea and Liverpool? Torres is probably reasonable value, despite being expensive, because, as mentioned above, there are few players of his quality, and few teams of Chelsea’s means, making a high price inevitable. I think he will do well for them and that is all they will care about. Carrol? I think Liverpool have fcked up there to be honest. I don’t think he is worth as much as Berbs. But he is very young and time could prove me wrong.

  10. The Druid – Absolutely with you on that mate. Been having a discussion on Twitter about it all this morning. How does one even value a player!?

    The question was asked – who from the current United team is worth more than £30m? I said no one bar Rooney (although right now many would disagree). I however said I’d want us to get at least £30m for say Nani or Vidic even though I don’t think either are worth £30m. I still think a signing over £20m is a big deal!!

    Carroll for £35m is one of the worst transfers ever. He may go on to have an amazing career there but right now he’s worth £12m maybe (IMO). Outside of the UK his value is negligible, no one outside the PL would pay big for him if they’ve even heard a lot about him (that’s not doing them a dis-service or saying foreign fans are ignorant but how many fans in the UK for example would have heard of Patrick Helmes?!). That transfer sums up everything that is wrong about English clubs, English football, English players, the English mentality to all of the above, and the amount of money teams in the PL have.

  11. Steve and Written Offside, thank you all for your kind words….

    The Druid/Ian,

    It is a complex one re value I’ll grant you that – but perhaps I didnt make the point clearly (this article as you can appreciate could have taken up another 7000 words!); I think the point I am trying to make is that everything that Berbatov does (and for him read Seba Veron), seems to be continually analysed in relation to his price-tag, especially the ‘goals scored’ tally; Which of course philosophically meaningless – and as you say, often a stick to beat him with when he doesnt live up to a pre-determined standard of performance.

    Taking this example further, you would have to ask what would be the commonly accepted set criteria for say a £30m player? My guess is that the bar would be set at a preposterously high level, i.e. 30 goals a season (or in Veron’s case 30 assists); Stunning long-range efforts, MOTM performance every other game etc and on….More inaccurate still when we consider Berbatov was never really bought as an out and out striker as the article tries to illustrate.

    Hence my comment thus….

    ‘and if he was bought for a paltry £5m, he would be the greatest signing Fergie has made in the last 10 years?’

    Meaning that the expectation (in terms of the initial irrelevant criteria!), would be far less, and we would be expressing what a fantastic job Berba has done for the side in terms of his creativity/bringing others into play/defensive duties (far more than Tevez as stated)/tactical hold-up play etc.

    Somebody above hit the nail on the head: Value is subjective, and we all know that SAF has complained over the years re inflated prices once Utd are in the market for a player – this was the going rate for Berba whether you like to accept that or not (Rio/Nani/Anderson/Roo/Carrick all came in for similar values many years ago); Both Berbatov and Veron then have been a victim of their price tags from fans and media alike, which inherently skews the tactical influence both had on the team/performance level.

  12. The Druid

    Sorry just seen your comment on the timing – Attending games home and away, and having a twitter account has left me in doubt that this ‘debate’ is still very much alive and kicking! Only against Blackpool was I hearing how he has yet again failed the team (1st half), and how 2 away goals was a paltry return. Speaking to a well renowned journalist yesterday, and he too is still 100% sure that Fergie cannot keep such a ‘luxury player’. This article has been written largely in response to two main occurrences:

    1. The tactical change which has been applied by SAF since the Liverpool game meaning that as pointed out by one poster above, Utd do indeed play with two ‘false’ 9’s, with Berba played slightly further ahead – which has ultimately given the fans what they have demanded: goals. and..

    2. The strong understanding we have that Berbatov is about to be given an improved contract before the season’s end – highlighting the wonderful naivety of the media once again, which en masse, suggested that Ferguson had ‘no other choice but to offload the Bulgarian’ in the summer (2010) due to his ‘inept’ performances in red.


  13. Why does it matter to United how many £30m plus players we have? It’s the quality that matters, surely.We are not Citeh or the Scouse who have needed to start from ground zero and buy a squad.

  14. Steve – personally it matters little to me but expectations will always be associated with fee (even if that’s the wrong thing to do)…I still consider anything above £20m a BIG transfer!

  15. “Carroll for £35m is one of the worst transfers ever.”

    It’s certainly steep but it’s way too early to judge it on that. He’s 22, given Premier League prize money if they get tens years out of him and 15 goals a year in all competitions then they’d probably say their £3.5m a year average isn’t bad value, depending on his contract.

    I’m not saying he will do that or that he won’t, and I’m certainly not saying I think he’s likely to be banging in 25 a season or carrying them to a league title or anything outlandish like that.

    Just that I’ve been thinking a lot about player valuation recently and my views on the matter are becoming more flexible the more I think about it. If he does well and Liverpool get a decade’s decent service out of him they’ll reckon they’ve done well. Of course in five years time he might equally have flopped and been sold off for a pittance. 😛

  16. Wow! That was a good read .. Your post helped clear so many doubts I had on so many issues with the player in question (Berbatov) .. This is the best post I’ve read in along time … All the best man …

  17. Interesting analysis.

    Berbatov – there was never a shred of doubt in my mind as to him coming thru @ old trafford for as long he remains – is an artform of a footballer.

    He was always going to get sticks in England, where football is stupidly and completely seen from goals scored/goals against equations.

    To truly appreciate his genius, just forget about the goals and watch his effortlessness @ ball control & movement…alluring stuff.

    Another player, that got a lot of stupid sticks, there was talk he was to be shipped away last summer is Nani.

    They say he seems himself a Ronaldo II. And some of his play and shots are showing trappings of a Ronaldo thinking already; People forget it took Ronaldo two seasons to evolve into his own at Old Trafford…

    Sometime soon, Nani will perfect his own metamorphosis and the press, will again begin, hypocritically as ever, to fawn..

    Its the way it is…

  18. It’s a fantastic article. Quite in-depth, and made for the internet rather than print media (where it’ll have to be cut down and made more concise).

    The quotes used paint the picture very well and place you at that moment. However, one slight criticism I have is when referring to matches, you should state the date and score so we fully realise the impact the game has and can create a chronological structuring in our heads.

    The analysis is spot on. But I would like to talk about the tactical side which is regarding the 4-4-2.

    It’s interesting Ferguson has used it as much as he has this season but I’m still sceptical of trust in it in big games.

    He hasn’t been tested in Europe so he has stuck with the 4-4-2 (although against Valencia he reverted to a 4-4-1-1). Normally, in the Champions League he plays the 4-5-1/4-3-3 because of the need for patience and control.

    In the league, he’s yet to face Chelsea and although I think he may play a 4-4-2 still, as he did in the Community shield, against Arsenal he definitely won’t and hasn’t. But that’s only because he knows how to beat Arsenal but it may hint at his continental experiments.

    “The idea behind the 4-5-1 is that you can control the midfield and keep possession of the ball – that’s always your aim when you use that formation. I believe the team that has possession of the ball has more opportunities to win the match. As for the 4-4-2, there is more emphasis in that formation placed on playing the ball forward and usually you use the two traditional wingers.”

    “Playing 4-5-1 requires a lot of patience but this team certainly has that in abundance,” he adds. “Some people say you have more chance of scoring by playing 4-4-2, and in some cases that might be right, but if you score and you’re playing 4-5-1, you then have a great opportunity to open the game up because the opposition then have to take risks.”

    The Valencia and Nani analysis is also brilliantly done although with the injuries of the former and Giggs also, perhaps he has been less inclined to play the 4-3-3/4-5-1.

    The 4-4-2, however, is a viable prospect in the league because most teams are open and United naturally dominate. Even so, the use of Rooney in the number 10 role is two-fold: United have often lacked creativity so Rooney’s drive and rapid link-up is seen as a better option. Plus, although you convincingly state Berbatov’s defensive contribution, Rooney offers a better press and ability to defend, if needed, as a 4-2-3-1. Here’s Tevez’s quote on how he was used at United and what, effectively, Rooney’s doing now. The role Tevez is playing at City is what Berbatov is playing for United.:

    “I am playing now as a free striker,” says Tevez. “This is my position. When I first joined Manchester City, I was not 100 per cent fit. Now I go on to the pitch and I am physically fit and mentally strong. I say to myself, “you have to win the game for City”. In my head, before the game, I think, “goals, goals, goals”. It’s 28 of them and still counting. I am now playing in the position I played in Argentina and Brazil and in the last 10 games for West Ham. At Manchester United, I was asked to defend more. It was a different responsibility.”

    The Berbatov focal point role is again well put. Van Persie is playing it at Arsenal as Wenger says, it’s the strikers “who bring the midfielders alive from deeper.” Berbatov is doing that. His movement has been getting better also, dragging the defenders around as he failed to do last season. It also helps that behind him are dynamic attackers who can attack the box at speed – United’s big strength. RVP was also criticised for slowing things down in the second-striker role and despite his advantages there in a 4-4-2 (great energy, makes a 4-2-3-1) he has found his calling as the highest striker. Just as Berbatov has, bringing his team-mates into the game.

    A great article.

  19. This is one of the best articles I’ve ever read, it’s fantastic.

    It’s like it’s taken many of my bottled up thoughts about Berba, added more and tipped the contents on to a webpage.

    I love the methodical approach to analyse him, I love the statistics and figures, and I think it’s a piece which demonstrates intelligence and insight.

    THANK YOU for posting it – it’s just a shame that so many who fail to see Berba’s talent will fail to listen to this too.


  20. Hi Michael (ZM)

    Thanks for your positive feedback.

    I agree entirely with you when you say that this isn’t exactly the case:

    ‘It now seems that Fergie has found the perfect balance between the dynamic 4-2-3-1 and the counter-attacking 4-4-2 as he has merged the systems to suit the players at his disposal.’

    ….I suppose I should have finished this sentence with the words, ‘in the majority of domestic league games’; As clearly, from his selections in games v Arsenal, City and Valencia for example this term, 4-2-3-1 has been the system of choice.

    I discussed Fergie’s quandary in greater detail here:


    ….actually advocating a full-retransition to 4-2-3-1 (for the majority of games). I am not alone amongst reds in contemplating the immediate impact that an ‘unstable’ or inconsistent system of play will have, especially with the Marseille game on the horizon and the tricky month of March.

    Ferguson (and Phelan) must have scrutinised every aspect of this conundrum, including how best to accommodate both Berba and Rooney into a lineup which is able to dominate possession (the Utd way), controlling the midfield territory against the top sides. In the link above, I advocate either Berba dropping very deep and Rooney as the ‘9’ or Berba striking, and Rooney in the ‘Henry role’; The problem being of course that the former lacks the pace, the latter, the finesse/positional maturity to pull it off.

    Of course in this squad era he doesn’t have to play both, and Anderson, Cleverley and Hernandez are all potential solutions to this issue, if one of them is able to grasp the opportunity!

  21. I just wanted to commend you for such a great article. It has echoed many of the thoughts I have had on Berbatov for a long while. I have always felt he got way more much stick than was deserved, even when he wasn’t play well (and there certainly was a time when he wasn’t playing well). I’d just like to add a few thoughts I have regarding Mr. Berbatov, these are off the top of my head and no where near as well thought out and researched as your excellent article so forgive me if I get anything wrong and feel free to put me in my place.
    When Berbatov was first purchased he completely didn’t fit in with the rest of the team. The team was set up to play a quick counterattacking game with the interchanging of Rooney, Tevez, and Ronaldo, as you so eloquently demonstrated. This very clearly didn’t fit into his style but as you state, he wasn’t really intended to play that style, it was a team in transition. I think less well discussed, is that for a long period of time Berbatov didn’t “fit”, “gel”, or “play together”, with the team. By which I really mean, they didn’t see the game in the same way and as such there where many passes and runs wasted by both Berbatov and his teammates around him, even after the exit of Ronaldo and Tevez and a change in the philosophy of the formation and tactics. You could often see Berbatov make runs to try to create space for others but the midfielder would play him instead and he was forced to try to fight for a ball in an inopportune position (also, often the run he was trying create space for was not recognized by others and so he actually had a lack of understanding both with runners off the ball and the player on it). He’d also often receive a pass, create a little space and play a clever ball (or flick the ball into space), only to have no one running beyond him into that position. He also was often forced to hold the ball while looking for runs that he felt others should be making and, when those particular runs wouldn’t be made, he’d then play the ball but this delay often lead to the feeling that he was slowing up play. I’ve felt that really it was Berbatov holding up play, not because he wanted to, but because of the lack of understanding between him and his teammates. A lot of those sorts of situations lead to him becoming visibly frustrated with teammates and was often the source of fans frustration. Lots of fans only see Berbatov lingering on the ball, losing possession with a flick or ball to seemingly no one, or not seeming to fight to get to a pass from a teammate; not the lack of a run from teammates, a lack of understanding with those around him, or the fact the ball played was the wrong ball in the first play and the only reason the run was made in the first place was for others.
    Then you factor in that when Berbatov played as a lone striker with two out and out wingers (often the preferred formation in “important” games”) the team suffered because Berbatov was often too isolated. He would make runs from a high position back towards midfield and then create from there and, due to the direction and tactics of the team (particularly last season and I believe the year before as well), would try to release the wingers. The problem of course is that once the winger is released he no longer has any targets because Berbatov is deep and the midfielders are largely reluctant and, truth be told, often ill suited to pushing forwarded into the space created by Berbatov (I’d argue that most of the players who play in the central 3 are players who are much more retention type midfielders, each with their own attributes, than push forward attacking midfielders, which I feel is a player we sorely miss but that is a discussion for another day). Berbatov likes to exchange passes and make runs off of the developments around him (ie he often profits from the exploitation of the least talked about, but vitally important, element of football, space), isolated he is often left frustrated (conversely Rooney flourished last year in the same formation, adding to frustration and criticism because after all if he can do it, why can’t Berbatov? ). You go into much greater detail and state it better than I can, but this lack of goal production (as a result of his unsuitability to the formation with regards to the team as a whole) in this formation also added to the pressure and resentment from some fans, as games involving this formation were often “important” ones.
    Combining the pressure of his price tag (justified or not), the fact he was not particularly wanted by many fans to begin with (I don’t recall a lot of admirers or clamoring for Berbatov to be signed until it meant beating City to the punch) , with Berbatov beginning his career in one team that didn’t suite him (the flowing, counterattacking Tevez, Rooney, Ronaldo side), and then the new evolved side often featured a formation that did not best suite his attributes in its most important games, with teammates who he often seemed to not be on the same page with, the lack of goals, (both through his own poor play at times and the situation around him) his body language as the result of his frustration of both his own play and his lack of cohesion with the side, and it was beginning to look like a no win situation for Berbatov, with both many United fans and, of course the United haters, questioning his signing and ultimately his ability. The unbelievably stupid Berbaflop tag was bandied about, and, even though if you paid attention you could see all the qualities he brought to the team, it was beginning to look like he wouldn’t make it.
    However, the 4-2-3-1 used in “important games” was not the only formation used by United. Berbatov’s contribution in so many games was over looked because it wasn’t in the “important games”(as he was normally on the bench). Particularly when within the 4-4-1-1 as the “false” 9, as you describe, his contribution is over looked because many fans are simple, if he is striker he must score goals. But his involvement in all other parts of the game are often missed because his talent often involves things drifting into space, creating space for others, as well as occasional glimpses of sublime skill, intelligent passing, and great link up play.
    As you illustrate, the side has evolved to a slightly different formation and, critically important I believe, Berbatov has gelled with the side. Rooney and Berbatov have a much better understanding and partnership. As you state, “An interesting point to note at this juncture is that Fergie’s ‘new system’ is very much a fluid one – with both Rooney and Berbatov asked to alternate as the leading ‘striker’ according to the pattern of the game” , and I think it’s this understanding that has brought out the best of Berbatov. However, with Rooney out for large portions of this season, Berbatov has shown a much greater understanding with the team as whole. His ability to play with the team in all situations I think has improved as both the team and Berbatov have become more comfortable with each other. As you state, young players such as Nani, Rafael, and Anderson have grown, as well as his understanding, linking, and interchanging with teammates has improved. The addition of Chicharito and his very intelligent, probing, running has given the side a different option to partner Berbatov, one that stretches defenses and creates space for Berbatov to operate. Paul Scholes great form and passing range, along with the play of Giggs and Nani (and Park to a lesser extent), has led to Berbatov being less isolated when played as the loan striker and as such he has produced the goods both in front of the net and in the build up.
    All in all, the pressure on Berbatov seems to have lifted, the fans are no longer on his back with every misplaced pass or missed chance, he seems to have a better understanding with in the side, and most importantly he scored early in the season. Surprise! Surprise! Berbatov playing with in a system(s) that suites him and with teammates he has chemistry and we are finally seeing the best of ability that he possess.

  22. Thank you Gilbert for your kind words and illustrative conclusions; you make some very valid points, especially about the team adapting to Berbatov and the effect this has had on his confidence. I talked about the psychology of crowds but this article could quite easily have examined the influence of positive psychology – of both the Bulgarian, and the team …

  23. well researched article, well I admire Berba, he is the most talented player at United at the moment, look at the way he controls the ball,the only problem which exists is that United has no midfielder, we don’t have “a right” deep midfielder like the Keano type, who should be able to distribute the balls and tackle some balls, likewise Berba fits in as no 10 but not 9 there he will perform miracles just watch all his games when he plays as a support striker.. the goals scored against Liverpool….he is excellent but SAF knows why he plays him with different roles. but actually he knows how to control and distribute the ball. he is really talented never seen such a player with that talent at united in the nineties and 2000s

  24. Great read.

    Just curious about this bit though:

    Defensively, again there is a myth regarding his work-rate and how he compares to say a Tevez-like player. Telegraph statistics show that Berbatov made 29 interceptions and 24 tackles in 34 appearances in comparison to Tevez (‘harder worker’) who made 7 interceptions, 11 tackles in 43 appearances.

    Was this in the 2008/09 or 2010/11 season?

  25. Utterly, utterly brilliant. I haven’t been this engrossed in a blog since I read that piece by Charlie Broker over at The Guardian about Nautilus the computer.

    IMHO, Berbatov has been underrated, abused and critcized nonsensically and needlessly. How many other players do we have of his ilk? As you have clearly said, No one bar Scholes has the same vision, positional and tactical awareness that this man so obviously exudes. I can understand why people might consider him as “lazy” and “languid” et al, I myself was one among them during his first season at Old Trafford, and it was undoubtedly due to what you have appropriately labelled as the Rooney effect (or shall we say Tevez effect in this case?)

    But in essence, he is a truly different player. He is the perfect number 9. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that he could pretty well be United’s solution to the trequartista.

    But anyway, brilliant piece, loved the research and lets hope a much maligned man gets some justice after all 🙂

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