I don’t actually know what the weather is typically like in Bulgaria, but I’m going to guess that the winters are chilly. And a good job too, because Dimitar Berbatov will have had some practice at being out in the cold; his position in the Manchester United pecking order is a solid fourth choice.
Rooney’s season has been an odd one. Full of output, with – at the time of writing – 20 league goals in United’s chase for a 20th league title, he has suffered from patches of less impressive form, and his all round game has perhaps not hit the peaks of his ability. Whilst he is part of the conversation for the coveted position of “World’s Third Best PlayerTM“, few would argue that he has made it his own.
Chicharito is, well, Chicharito. He’s a goal machine – in a season where injury prevented a proper run in the team, he looked sharp and effective in patches – his first goal in the 5-0 win against Bolton Wanderers, for example, was a masterclass of how to lose a defender and get on the end of a cross. When it works, Chicharito is an absolutely perfect foil for Rooney, creating huge gaps in defences using the ancient hidden art of “running.”
After a debut season packed full of vital goals and excitement, this season has been slightly less explosive, but still effective – 11 goals, of which several have been absolutely key. Chicharito scored the only goals in 1-0 wins against Everton and Swansea, and the 84th minute equaliser against Chelsea. The Mexican’s build up play has been slightly lacking, although his first touch was much improved against West Bromwich Albion last week. And – whisper it – he seems to be missing the birthplace he shares with Pipo Inzaghi slightly less, being more prepared to spend time in the foreign land of ‘onside’.
Danny Welbeck is that most treasured of players – a local lad who looks like he belongs in United red at the very top of the game. In our slapstick three-all draw with ‘FC Basil’ – if it’s good enough for Gary Neville, it’s good enough for me – Welbeck looked assured and effective as a solo front man in a 4-5-1 formation. But in the 3-0 win against Tottenham back in August he had a very poor game, until he scored, at which point he appeared to turn into SuperWelbz, a version of himself with outlandish powers.
As the season has progressed, few could doubt Welbeck’s contribution to the campaign. So much so that Welbeck is probably Fergie’s first choice of foil for Rooney – although his finishing is still not quite as clinical as we would all like it to be – his nine goals in all competitions reflect a decent return for a player who adds so much to United’s all round play. Chich and Welbeck are very different players, a wonderful asset to Sir Alex Ferguson in terms of versatility, and a challenge in terms of picking the right player for the right game.
Which brings us to Dimi. Ah, Dimi. If I was as good at football as Dimitar, I would not want to be a fourth choice striker. He is an outrageously gifted footballer whose entire United career has been dogged by huge ebbs and flows of confidence, effectiveness and appearances. When he didn’t make the Champions League final bench, I was sad, but not surprised – Berbatov is many things, but he is clearly not an impact player.
He was the joint top scorer in the Premier League last season, but as has been said time and again, those goals came in bursts, and there were long barren periods in between. Berbatov stepped up immensely during Wayne’s calamitous drop in form in the early part of last season, relishing his role as the ‘man’, but his confidence seemed to drain away as Rooney’s returned. Berba did score a hat trick against Liverpool, of course, which you could argue was worth the transfer fee by itself…
That transfer fee – the millstone around Berbatov’s neck for his whole time at United. £30 million plus justified by Berbatov’s talent, and arguably by his vital contributions to a historic season, but he has never managed the consistent contribution expected by players who cost that much. He’s never become a superstar.
The question that interests me here is why? Why has Berbatov never managed to firmly establish himself as a world-beating, first-name-on-the-team-sheet type of player when he is so abundantly talented. He was a star at Tottenham Hotspur, scoring 46 times in 102 appearances, and nudging towards the mythic one in two ratio.
Berbatov was also incredibly effective for Spurs in the Europa league, scoring 12 goals in 16 games. At United, at the time of writing, Berba has 56 goals in 147 games, which is much closer to one in three. In the league for United it’s 48 in 106, which is a very decent output – certainly not one that would set alarm bells ringing. In Europe for the Reds, however, it’s five in 26 – four of which came in the 2008/09 season.
Fergie has completely given up on Berbatov in crucial Champions League games where he has any choice in the matter. The manager has also pretty much given up on Dimi in the big league games too – Chicharito didn’t take too long to be preferred, in a two-man front line, and this season Danny’s been ahead of Chich. Rooney, or indeed Welbeck, will always be a more useful as a lone forward.
I wonder what his relationship with the manager is like. Berbatov has never publicly complained about his marginalised role. If Berba was agitating for a move in the summer, which most of us surely thought would happen given the Champions League final squad, he did it out of the papers.
It must be hard to have that much talent and not be trusted. I’ve heard fans speculate that Berba didn’t want a move in the summer because, somehow, he enjoys the easy life of not playing that often for United and picking up an enormous cheque. I have no way of really knowing, but that just doesn’t sit right with me as an argument. I’ve never really thought that Dimitar looked like he wasn’t trying, just that trying for him doesn’t mean running in the way it does - or, used to – for Carlos Tevez.
“We will be taking up the option on his contract but, having had chats with him, I understand he wants to get first-team football,” said Sir Alex last week.
“It is something we need to consider at the end of the season. For a player of his age and his ability it is disappointing for him that he is not getting first-team football. We will look at the end of the season but until then, he remains at United.”
It is quite unusual for Sir Alex to speak so publicly about a player’s future, and I wonder what that says of their relationship. Certainly the public face of it has always been respectful. Berbatov describes being such a bit part figure in the club as “sad and painful,” but then goes on to talk about the importance of the team as a whole.
I wrote this article not to offer an argument, but to ask aloud the question of why Berbatov’s United career has disappointed, because I just don’t know the answer. I’ve absolutely loved watching the Bulgar ply his trade in red – he’s the kind of player that makes me like football; a magician with the ball on his best days. But maybe Berba’s never had the right assets to be a huge success at United – the capacity to deal with the pressure of the world stage.
Maybe it’s that at United he has only rarely had a team built around him, unlike at Spurs when he was the most important player in the squad. I don’t think it can be that he is lazy – he still seems really popular with the rest of the squad, and surely that wouldn’t be the case if they didn’t think he was a good professional.
Berba’s signing seemed an act of opportunism; a last-minute smash and grab to stop City getting him, so the story goes. If Fergie had his time again, I wonder if he would have decided to save that cash for someone else. Berbatov has been too often the wrong beautifully gifted, hugely talented, option for the way Fergie’s team is set up.
When Berba was signed, Sir Alex made comparisons to Eric Cantona. Sadly many United fans would peg Berba as closer to a different Eric in the pantheon of Ferguson signings. I think the critics are wrong about that, given, especially, Berbatov’s vital contributions last season. But still, he has clearly never reached the heights we would have hoped.
I love Berbatov, but I definitely can’t argue with Fergie’s pecking order. Dimitar makes even less sense in 2011/12 United than he did in those difficult spells in past seasons. I hope Dimi has – and takes – the chance to make some kind of significant contribution before he goes. Even if he does, though, when he leaves in the summer, or even by some miracle after that, the story that is written of him will be that he was at best a disappointment at United.
But that’s not what I’ll remember. I’m going to deliberately and obstinately remember the good times. That thing on the byline against West Ham United, when he crossed to Cristiano Ronaldo; the time he started an epic team goal from left back, and sauntered into the box to finish the move; that time when he scored an amazing overhead kick in the middle of a hat-trick against Liverpool, at Old Trafford; plucking the ball out of the sky and controlling it like he’d received a five-yard Michael Carrick sideways pass; and that glorious 10 minutes in Leeds when Berba pointed and shouted, stood in the right places, and generally did a pretty good job at centre-half.
A version of this article first appeared in Rant Monthly.