The matter of the Manchester United enigma named Dimitar Berbatov was only brought up in these columns a few weeks ago but his performances since, culminating in last Sunday’s somewhat petulant display at Ewood Park, has put the Bulgarian’s name back on everyone’s lips.
It may be timely therefore to revisit the question of where he goes from here because his time at Old Trafford could well be coming to an end.
It may be appropriate however to first ask this question. While Sir Alex Ferguson is doubtlessly regarded as the greatest manager in the history of English, arguably European and possibly world club football by almost every United fan, is the man infallible in every decision he makes?
More to the point, should a part of the Berbatov dilemma be placed on Ferguson’s own shoulders, did the unexpected circumstances which arose this season combine to force difficult decisions which may have led to the current situation? These questions need to be raised because Berba’s two unhappy seasons at Old Trafford are not easily explained. Everyone seems to have an opinion, most vary greatly but there is obviously not a clear cut, right or wrong answer to any of them.
Let’s go back to the beginning of last season when Sir Alex paid Spurs nearly £31million for his signature minutes before the transfer deadline. Ferguson knows his football, he can smell talent a mile away and knew exactly what he was getting for the small fortune he outlaid.
Berba’s goal scoring record up until then reads CSKA Sofia – 37 in 65 matches, Bayern Leverkusen – 90 in 200, Tottenham – 46 in 102 – which included 12 from16 European games and Bulgaria – 48 in 77. Not a record that should be sneezed at.
There is also a reasonable theory that Ferguson was already aware of the deal that was going to take Cristiano Ronaldo to Spain at the end of the season which made him determined to get his man prior to his fee being dramatically increased when the record transfer figure for Ronaldo was revealed.
Frankly, none of that concerned Berbatov, all he wanted was to play for Manchester United and prove his value to his new boss, the club and to its fans. As it turned out, United ended up having a great season winning the FIFA World Club Cup, The Carling Cup, retained the Premier League title for the third year running and again got into the European Champions League Final for the second time in a row.
For Berbatov himself however it was a struggle to make the transition from being the main man at Tottenham to a squad player amongst the likes of Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney in one of Europe’s biggest clubs. His creativity and high quality technique never deserted him but his tally of just 9 goals was not seen as being a good enough return for the large investment Ferguson made in him.
This season was supposed to be the one when the Bulgarian made his mark. Ronaldo departed for Real Madrid and Tevez crossed from the red to the blue side of town leaving himself together with Rooney as the recognized striking duo but things never turned out as planned.
His own early season knee problem together with various lengthy injuries to virtually the entire defensive set up – with the sole exception of Patrice Evra, meant that the midfield was also affected. Ferguson was forced to shuffle his pack nearly every week in order to field a side which could best overcome those problems and one of his few options was to play with a five man midfield together with a sole striker.
The fact that the chosen spearhead simply had to be Rooney was obvious to everyone most of all to Berbatov himself but what was Fergie supposed to do with the £31million Bulgarian? His game is simply not suitable to play that role nor is he adaptable for a midfield one which meant that Ferguson was only left with one reluctant option – the bench!
Sir Alex is just as much a victim of those circumstances as Berbatov is. Neither asked for those injuries that almost decimated the side for as long as they did but then, just to top everything off, United suffered the blow of losing Rooney with that ankle injury in Munich.
Here’s a thought which should be considered, imagine if Rooney came through that Munich game unscathed. He would have been able to take the field against Chelsea possibly helping to salvage a draw, the return leg against Munich could have easily been survived while 3 points at Blackburn must have been achievable. United would at this moment still be neck and neck with Chelsea, maybe even with a nose in front at the top of the table and in the semi final of the Champions League.
With just four measly games remaining in the Premier League and United in such a strong position, would there have been the same calls for the team to be rebuilt and for Berbatov to be shipped out at the end of the season? It really makes you wonder!
Where Fergusons role in all this comes under scrutiny – and with the benefit of hindsight, the question has to be asked whether he made an error of judgment by spending a club record transfer fee on an admittedly class player who nevertheless could not fit into his own system? Did Ferguson expect to change Berba’s natural style of play but found that he was unable to? And finally, did Sir Alex plan to change his system to suit Berbatov but was trumped by the large number of unexpected injuries that hit his squad?
It makes one wonder but whatever the answers are, does Berbatov really have to be held responsible for the way events unfolded in the last few weeks of what was after all a season which frankly exceeded most expectations?
One last point should be made. Even most of Berbatovs harshest critics concede that he is a high quality, class player the like of which you find very few of in the League. The main complaint that you hear is that “Berba does not fit in at United” or that “he’s not the type of player the team needs”. Yes, the man has his share of faults but these arguments are almost impossible to comprehend coming as they do from fans of Manchester United.
This is a club which was built on quality, has a proud, long history of celebrating precisely the type of talent that Berbatov has to offer. Perhaps running around, covering every blade of grass for 90 minutes is what English football itself has sadly descended to!
Is there still a future for Berbatov at Old Trafford?