Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Dimitar Berbatov: Worst Manchester United Signing Ever? or Player on the Verge of Greatness?

It would be fair to say that since Dimitar Berbatov's £30.75 million pound move to Manchester United from Tottenham Hotspur, that he has not set the world alight.

Before heading to Old Trafford, Berbatov's goal-scoring was formidable to say the least. At international level he had scored 41 goals in 67 games, and with Spurs he had converted 46 goals in 102 games over two seasons, a brilliant record with almost a goal every two games.

That record has dulled somewhat since his move to the Red Devils though. In a little over one season at the club, Berbatov has returned only 17 goals from 54 games between Premiership and European action, a record of 1:3.

Many United fans would argue that the Bulgarian international had to endure being played out of position for the most part in his first season, but the truth of the matter is that he was almost exclusively used as the upper-most forward in Ferguson's schemes while Rooney, Ronaldo, and lest we forget Carlos Tevez did the main rotating.

Red Devils fans have only seen glimpses of his undoubted ability in a red shirt, most notably a superb turn against West Ham last season. The fact that such instances have to be dredged up is a sure sign that the Bulgarian is not firing on all cylinders.

But while he is more than capable of the sublime, he can also contribute his fair share of lazy blunders, like his poor penalty against Everton in the FA Cup Semi-final last season, that cost United a chance at a historic quadruple.

So what is the problem with Berbatov?

Well according to himself, nothing at all.

"You know," he says, "when someone has great qualities sometimes they don't have to put much effort into things. Sometimes the things I do look effortless but it's not like that. It's very difficult, but because of my style of play I make it look easy."

Berbatov is described like this on Manchester United's official website.

"Dimitar Berbatov is a classy and complete centre-forward, pairing the ability to ruthlessly and regularly find the net inside the box with an aptitude to create moments of sheer magic outside it.

"Sir Alex likes players with plenty of charisma in the way they play, and the Bulgarian’s languid style is instantly recognisable on the field. It’s also an approach that has drawn comparisons with former United talisman Eric Cantona."

Typical spiel that you would find about any player on their teams website, but it is one that some Manchester United fans fervently believe.

For a start, Berbatov is nowhere near being a complete centre-forward, for that you only have to look across other teams in the Premiership. Fernando Torres, Didier Drogba, and even Wayne Rooney, are far more complete players than the ex-Spurs player, with Torres in particular being one of the greatest if not the greatest exponent of forward play in the world today.

What Berbatov does have over these players is a creative side that verges on genius. His ability to pick out a seemingly impossible pass from nowhere gives him an edge over his "lone striker" rivals in that he is slightly more versatile.

That versatility is what made Alex Ferguson move for him in the first place, but when push came to shove, Berbatov proved to be versatile in only two positions instead of the three or four that his new manager had hoped.

With a distinct lack of pace over long or short distances, Berbatov is instantly redundant out wide, so in playing to his strengths, Ferguson plays him as a direct centre-forward or just off it.

Conventional wisdom would say that Manchester United had a phenomenal season last year, being pipped at the post on their historic journey for four trophies. And it was, but they had to carry an unhappy Ronaldo and a misfiring Berbatov through many matches, often leaving the team with only nine outfield players trying.

Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez were direct contrasts to each other last season, in more ways than one.

One player worked his guts out every week in trying to secure a new contract, to the extent that Manchester United's fans even turned against their manager for a few brief moments when they called for him to sign the Argentinian.

Meanwhile, Berbatov seemed happy to have finally arrived at one of the worlds great clubs, and forgot that the real hard work was only starting.

Tevez was not alone in the way he approached the game at Old Trafford. Alex Ferguson has had many players like him who subscribe to the basic fundamentals of the game.

Players like Roy Keane, Mark Hughes, Patrice Evra, Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, Darren Fletcher, Paul Scholes, and John O'Shea, these players have only one agenda when they step onto a pitch and that's to win the ball, and the game in that order.

It's this basic truth and essential part of the game that makes it so hard to understand why Ferguson continues to indulge Dimitar Berbatov, particularly when it is so obvious to everyone that every time he steps out onto the pitch that he can give so much more and is not playing at 100 percent, or that he is denying a place for someone who could make a difference.

Last season ended disappointingly for Berbatov. The player we saw on the pitch was not the final piece of the never-ending jigsaw that everyone thought he would be.

Perhaps it was having to indulge the antics of Ronaldo who refused to allow anyone else at United take the alpha role at the club, or perhaps it was the massive transfer fee and the pressure of playing for a great club.

It would seem that all of the above played their part in his below par season.

Berbatov for the first time has spoken of his self-doubt, and of insecurity and how he was "plagued by United's former legends".

"In my first year I was disappointed in myself. I need to say that. It was a big pressure for me and maybe I failed myself. I think I wanted to prove myself to these supporters.

"You must remember, they are used to Best, Charlton, Cantona. I am just Dimitar."

Regarding the dissatisfaction of some United supporters with his work rate, effectiveness and attitude on the pitch, and some allegations that he is a "Berbasloth," the Bulgarian put on a defiant face, saying "that is my fault, not theirs. It is me who must change".

With such an introspective view of how last season went, many United fans are still in hope that this season goes well for the player who was voted the second worst English transfer of all time.

But this season has been a continuation of last year if anything.

It would seem that Fergie and Berbatov have something of a trust issue going on, if the first eight games to the Premiership season are to go by.

Of an available 720 minutes (eight matches), Berbatov has only played 515 minutes, including three full games, which means that he has failed to play the full 90 in over half the matches this year.

His best performance to date was in Manchester United's 5-0 demolition of Wigan Athletic where he seemed to cut the Latics to pieces. The following weekend he was dropped to the bench for the Red Devils biggest game of the season so far when United entertained title rivals Arsenal at Old Trafford.

Does Ferguson see Berbatov as being central to United's cause, or just another cog in the machine?

The jury is still out on Dimitar Berbatov's time at Old Trafford, and that's what makes it so infuriating.

He is a player who has all the assets needed to play at the highest level, but it is his attitude that lets him down time and time again.

United's supporters have been patient during his 54 games at the club and some would point to his slightly better performances this season as being the green shoots of a newer better Berbatov.

But his time at United is running out. Alex Ferguson is famous for giving his players chances, especially if he feels they are capable of much more. Berbatov definitely fits into this category.

Unless his performances dramatically improve, he might find himself on the long list of players who have failed under the shadows of some of the games greats at the Theatre of Dreams.

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