Dimitar Berbatov has been the subject of much criticism since his £30.5 million move from Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 2008. The media was all too quick to label the Manchester United forward a ‘flop’. Meanwhile, sections of the United support became suspicious of the player’s patented no-action style. Both have demanded more.
But not, it seems, more than the man himself.
Berbatov is far from a football cliché. Choose your words: Mysterious. Languid. Arrogant. Aloof. Although none truly portray the real Berbatov; a shy family man, searching for his demons within a tapestry of almost peerless talent. Enigmatic off-the-pitch; unpredictable on it. Perhaps the Blagoevgrad-born striker should have been a movie star, not a footballer. As a player and a man, he has always been difficult to place in a box and therefore perennially misunderstood.
On the pitch the former Bayer Levekusen player has undoubtedly earned himself a reputation. The effortless grace of the Bulgarian’s playing style is too often mistaken for lack of work ethic. Perhaps more damaging – and closer to the truth – is the oft levelled criticism that he lacks a cutting edge. It’s a charge the player recognises, and one hard to rebut after 14 goals in 43 appearances for the club last season.
“That is my fault, not theirs. It is me who must change,” Berbatov told The Sun of the criticism levelled at him by supporters.
“Manchester United are their club. They have treated me perfectly since I came. 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. I got a number of assists, but I must score more goals.”
One often gets the sense that Berbatov – selfless as both a man and player – gains more pleasure from executing another sublime piece of skill than scoring a goal. That the excitement, for him, is in the journey and not the destination itself. It’s a character trait that his father and mentor Ivan has often expressed of the former CSKA Sofia player. One that is more often seem as a flaw in professional sport.
While Berbatov has often been compared to United legend Eric Cantona, their personalities are polar opposites. The graceful style on the pitch have drawn supporters and media alike to the comparison but it is Berbatov’s introspection, opposed to the Frenchman’s bravado, that has led to sleepless nights for the current United striker.
“I don’t know what I am doing wrong sometimes. Maybe it’s luck, maybe it’s me… who knows?,” he said.
“At nights I have stayed awake thinking, ‘You could have done this instead’.”
There is also a sense that the media – ever keen to find a convenient pigeon-hole for a player they don’t understand – spend less time analysing the Bulgarian’s game than the man himself. He is a player aware both of his talents and his limitations. Indeed, far from the arrogant label he is often attributed, Berbatov is a player uncomfortable under the spotlight.
But the Bulgarian has begun his second his second season at United aware of the need to cultivate both his goal tally and work ethic if he is to improve on his tally of 16 goals in 53 appearances.
“I am more pleased with my overall game in this second season already,” he added.
“I feel that I have integrated myself better into the team. I am much stronger, much fitter. But I still wish I could score more. I will be honest. This criticism did affect me, but not in a negative way.
“I looked at our ProZone stats and saw that I was ninth in distance covered. I am kind of a nerd. I looked at them too much, maybe. By the end of the season I was fourth. Maybe this season I will be first!”
The player’s performances have certainly caught the eye this season, especially those against Tottenham and Wolfsburg. Moreover, Berbatov’s ability to drift in-between the midfield and back four will be central to the team’s ability to break down opposition ready to ‘park the bus’ this season. Without the Cristiano Ronaldo battering ram, United must look for subtlty around the box.
Berbatov’s role in the United team also creates questions. Fans at Old Trafford have grown used to players who play at pace, such as Rooney, Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez in recent seasons. Berbatov by contrast is apt to slow the game. Moreover, Ferguson believes that the player’s performances are better when deployed as an out-and-out striker, with Rooney in-the-hole. Yet with roles reverse, the Bulgarian is a consummate at exploiting space.
One thing is certain: Berbatov is unlikely to make any demands.