Berbatov as playmaker : Possible or pointless?

Straight Swap?

Dimitar Berbatov presents a problem for Sir Alex Ferguson. After literally breaking the bank to get the Bulgarian from White Hart Lane, Ferguson seems to have lost faith in the former Leverkusen hitman and this has seen him being relegated to fourth choice striker, behind Rooney, Hernandez and Welbeck. Strangely however, not once has the Bulgarian protested against this demotion. Instead, he has re-iterated his desire to stay at the club and help achieve title number twenty. He has also publicly stated his love for the club –

For me, Manchester United is the top. Everything else is a step down

Sir Alex too has repeatedly proclaimed his belief in Berbatov, and has insisted that he will remain at the club come what may, despite his actions speaking louder than his words. Yet, after all that has been said and done, the simple truth is that Berbatov has played just 10 times for United this season, but has scored 7 times for the champions – which is 1 more than Danny Welbeck, United’s preferred first-choice striker, and only 1 less than Chicharito, who is Ferguson’s preferred super-sub. I admit, most of them were scored against the weaker sides and also included a hat-trick against lowly Wigan. However, it cannot be said that Berba does not score – he may not be as prolific as Hernandez, but the man still can still find the net with appreciable frequency.

And this begs the question – why doesn’t he start more games for us?

On paper, the answer is apparent. “Lazy”, “useless”, “slow” et al are some of the words reserved by the Old Trafford faithful for the Bulgarian, and to an extent, it is true. Berbatov is slow, he does appear excessively languid and frustratingly holds up play sometimes – which he amply demonstrated against Ajax in the Europa League. Nevertheless, dig a bit deeper and you are left with a startling picture.

He might never have been a plenteous goal machine, but if you take into account the number of times he has unselfishly laid the ball on to his team-mates, then Berba’s contribution is a total of 67 goals in 140 appearances. Compare those stats to someone like Nani, who has contributed to 56 goals in 174 appearances and considering a lot of Berbatov’s appearances were from the bench, you have to wonder why he is slated for not contributing enough to the team.

Take his passing for instance – Compared to a conventional striker (say Hernandez), Berbatov presents a unique alternative. He does not always play with his back to goal and is more than ready to create chances than score them. Comparing passing tendencies of both Berba and Hernandez during the second half in last season’s matches, we find  a contrasting picture –

The stats show us that Hernandez, the out and out striker is almost thrice as likely to pass the ball backwards, than forwards, while Berbatov passing tendencies in either direction are almost the same. Berba may not be even half as fast, or as ruthless as Chicharito is, but he is way more likely to link up with the midfield and provide that killer pass. So in essence, he is being asked to create as much as he is asked to score.

Berbatov's passing heat-maps

Comparing the last two matches he started for United, we see that the major portion of Berbatov’s passes are made in the space behind the strikers – essentially Wayne Rooney territory. So rather than pushing up, Berbatov functions as a false-nine, a trequartista. Like Rooney, he also has an affinity for drifting out to the left to link up with whichever winger is playing there.

Ferguson’s preferred method of dealing with the lack of creativity this season has been to dump Wayne Rooney into the middle of the park and ask him to put in Scholes-esque performances. Rooney is supremely talented no doubt, but in all honesty, he is much better up-field, dropping off the lead striker.

Per match                                                   Rooney up front                     Rooney in midfield

MU Shots on goal                                                    19.9                                                     10.5

MU Shots on target                                                  7.9                                                       5.0

MU Goals scored                                                      3.3                                                        1.0

Opponents Shots on goal                                       19.0                                                    14.0

Opponents Shots on target                                     6.0                                                       4.5

Opponents Goals scored                                         1.5                                                          0

The stats speak for themselves. Pushing Rooney into the midfield has proven more detrimental than helpful. Our shots on goal has dropped drastically and we have scored a full two goals less in each game. On a slight upside however, Rooney in midfield provides a shield for the back-four and as a result, we have had lesser shots on target and subsequently conceded less goals.

Per match                            As Striker                      As Midfielder

Touches                                    62                                         78.5

Passing                                     63                                          65

Passing Accuracy                  81%                                      83%

Total Shots                               4.0                                         1.5

On Target                                 2.3                                         1.0

Goals                                         1.1                                          0

Key Passes                               2                                           0

Well well well. Again, moving Rooney into midfield shows no satisfactory result for either the team or the man himself. In matches played in the middle of the park, Rooney’s influence on the game has been majorly reduced. He scores less, shoots less and commits lesser to the build up play. That away game against Otelul Galati in Bucharest – a match we should have steamrolled through – serves as the perfect case in point. Rooney was in the middle of the park and both him and United were terrible, barely scraping a win against a club who had just won their first title in 47 years. The last two statistics alone make up for damning reading.

Clearly then, Rooney is no midfield lynchpin. He’s an extremely talented and versatile player, but his best position by far is as a lone striker up front, where he proved devastating in front of goal during the 2009-10 season. This brings me nicely to my point – Why don’t we play Berbatov in the middle?

Everyone knows that our midfield has been poor for sometime – Before his injury, multi-instrumentalist Phil Jones was doing a job in there, partly because United were already short due to Fletcher’s absence. Michael Carrick’s been playing well in a ‘Michael Carrick’ kind of way, often supplemented by Ji-Sung Park who runs around.  Ashley Young is often described as a player who can ‘do a job’. Someone should find out what that job is because at the moment it doesn’t look like it’s ‘playing for Manchester United’. Ryan Giggs, god bless him, has been fielded out on the left wing more often than not this season. The one ‘new’ addition to the squad, Paul Scholes is obviously loved but he told everyone in his book that he knew he was finished twelve months ago. ‘Raphabio’ has been given a go but I’m assuming Ferguson was just messing about. That really only leaves Paul Pogba who Ferguson seems not to trust, Anderson, who is rubbish, and Tom ‘TC23 -The Brand’ Cleverly who has been ‘out-for-two-weeks’ for four months now and may or may not be fantastic.

While Berbatov may or may not be a failure, it cannot be argued that such a transition is impossible. Paul Scholes himself started out as a striker before shifting into the midfield, and Berbatov is extremely similar to Scholes in a number of ways. Berbatov’s talent lies in his intelligence, technical ability and composure. He is also exceptional at holding the ball up, an excellent passer and always seems to find open players in the box. He rarely relieves the team of possession when he has the ball and he utilises space effectively. He brings different skills to the team than players like Hernandez. His excellent positioning on the pitch means he doesn’t have to indulge in harrying or closing down.

Yes, he gets caught offside far too often, his work ethic is sometimes seen as aloof and disinterested, and he can go missing for large periods of the game. But when on form and in the mood, he can destroy teams as evidenced by his stellar displays last season. Last year’s goal of the season may have gone to Wayne Rooney for that gravity-defying overhead kick against City, but for me it was Berba’s third against Rovers that showed exactly why he belongs at this club. The lightning pace of the counter-attack, started by United’s number 9 from inside his own half, exchanging near-perfect passes with his mates, and ending the move with his beautiful finish into the top corner of the net.

We know that Berbatov likes to drop off the main striker, and slight tweak in our formation would present us with a possible panacea – rather than playing an outright 4-4-2, we could arrange the midfield into a diamond with Berbatov at the tip of the diamond. This way, the Bulgarian can create chances as and when he wants, Rooney can drop off and interchange with Berbatov and someone like Michael Carrick could play as a holding midfielder, a role which fits him perfectly as well. Our traditional wing-play wouldn’t be affected as well if such a change were to be tried out.

Of course, in theory, everything seems possible and probable. Putting the same into effect might bring more unintended consequences that desired results, and the same applies to this. While Berbatov certainly has the ability, it cannot be ignored that Berbatov does not possess some of the pre-requisites for a successful midfielder – mobility, stamina and consistency. Nevertheless, all I ask for is the man to be given a chance at such a new role. Whatever happens, he can’t be as bad as Park and Rafael in the middle, can he?

Those that idolize him provide Berbatov with the same blind devotion that United fans once mocked their Manchester City rivals for when Georgi Kinkladze was forgiven all of his short-comings — an inability to use his right-foot, pass or tackle — simply because he possessed a magical left foot in a team which will go down as one of the worst in the club’s history. Kinkladze was the sole shining light during a bleak era at Maine Road, but it seems as though Berbatov is now regarded as offering a similarly rare dose of fantasy at Old Trafford. If Berbatov were to be sold, half of Manchester would resemble Pyongyang after the death of Kim-Jong Il and the other would say “Berba-who?”



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  • some good points and some terrible ones….really dont know where to start with this one!
    all i will say is that berbatov in a diamond with carrick holding and rooney playing off a “number 9” would be the most “open to being raped” united side i have ever seen, our creaky backline atm would get murdered!

  • I understand your concern mate. However, our most successful season in some time has been the treble winning season in 2007-08. There, we had Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez who were rotating all about the place, and that didn’t turn out to be too bad!

    You’re right in saying we might get raped – that backline without vidic is lamentable. Nevertheless, I think once we have Vidic back, it just might work.

  • Speaking as someone who has a soft spot for Berba, I’d quite like to see this. He could do for United what Le Tissier once did for Southampton – and who knows, with good players around him (something Le Tiss hardly ever had) it might even work. Given that Fergie seems keen to give everyone – except Pogba – a go in the middle this season, why not Berbatov?

    Yes, we’d be open at the back, but let’s face it we’ve been open at the back all season anyway.

  • Interesting stats that tell a bit. Disagree about one thing though; Berba isn’t show..!

  • I think there are 3 players on whom United should ponder very seriously : Christian Eriksen (Ajax), Kevin Strootman (Psv) & Mario Godze (Dortmund).

  • man this is a great article! and yeah why can’t SAF at least bring berb on as sub in midfield to help deal with the LACK of caliber in that area. berb’s got great touch and feel and can obviously pass like demon and he’s good at holding up the ball.
    he came on and did a good job as center back, that shocked everyone and he is far more suited to be playing further up the pitch. so yeah as an attacking midfielder or central. i’d just like to see some change. there’s not enough fluidity in the way man u play a lot of the time…

  • I truly believe that Berbatov possesses the qualities to act as a playmaker. My main concern is his motivation as it seems that he only plays well when he feels like.

  • Yea that is an issue isn’t it? anyway Ferguson now says Berba might leave in the summer. I swear to god if he lets Berba leave and gives a contract extension to Michael Owen, I might just kill him.

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