How many more chances – both from his manager and indeed created by his teammates – will Dimitar Berbatov be handed on a plate before he starts to pay back the £32m Manchester United invested in him?
Today’s derby is the latest in a string of performances that have flattered to deceive – the man has all the attributes to challenge Wayne Rooney for top dog in the striking department, but he is not coming up with the goods as regularly or reliably as United now need him to. The Bulgarian has the faith of his manager, so much so it forced Carlos Tevez to bolt the gate into the neighbours yard, but for how long will Sir Alex Ferguson keep a fit and firing Michael Owen on the bench?
Berbatov has the chances, gets the starting place, but the goals aren’t flowing. The cost of games where he fails to contribute to the team is outweighing the worth of the goals and assists he eventually produces in those moments of magic. United don’t miss the chasing down of Carlos Tevez or the verve of Cristiano Ronaldo, but they do miss the link those two players provided between midfield and attack, hence the switch to the 4-4-2. Berbatov’s tendency to drop off the forward-line saw that he at least fitted into the three-man attack last season, but his lack of coverage of the pitch and the sale of Ronaldo and Tevez forced Fergie’s hand. Now, in a two-man attack, Berbatov still drops off the already deep-laying Rooney and with his selfish style, fails to involve his supporting teammates from midfield. Play breaks down too often in the centre of the pitch going forward, down both to Berbatov’s lack of awareness for teammates and Rooney’s lack of teammates ahead of him.
The 4-4-2 didn’t work when United had Ronaldo in the team for the same reason it doesn’t work today with both Berbatov and Rooney in attack. Berbatov, just like Ronaldo before him in the 4-4-2, drops too deep into the midfield. In the 4-3-3 set-up, United’s three midfielders were positioned further back to provide the defensive cover needed to balance out the lack of it from the wings and for playmakers like Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick to utilise their long-range passing ability to its full. A four-man midfield pushes the lines further up the pitch, with the central two expected to attack more (directly asked to do so, through the Press this summer, from Sir Alex Ferguson). Ronaldo’s creativity was stemmed in this central position, crowded out by the opposition and he was unable to involve his teammates as well as from a wide position, and Berbatov suffers the same symptoms at the moment. However, going back to a three-man attack is not the answer with Messrs Ronaldo and Tevez gone, so what are the options?
In a two-man forward line, United cannot afford two luxury players in the form of Berbatov and Rooney. Rooney is without doubt the better player for his affect on the rest of the team and the dynamic nature of his play. However, he still remains a luxury player despite his contributions to the side due to the inconsistent nature of his goal-scoring and his creative spark being somewhat unreliable and hard to play with. For such a luxury player to continue playing in the side without undue pressure on his lack of contribution to the team in terms of goals and assists, the said luxury player needs to be up-front with a more clinical finisher, someone who can suit the 4-4-2 formation Fergie is looking to bring in and also take the few chances afforded him each game with regular efficiency.
The reason Michael Owen scored his goal today was down to the same formation pushing the midfield line forward and requiring strikers to play on the edge of offside – indeed it is Owen’s only known position. United fans don’t resent Berbatov for his style or approach to the game. Labelled lazy by the Press, his nonchalant flicks and dribbles don’t always come off, but the fans recognise his genius. Tevez and Ronaldo were ‘one-offs’ for their own reasons. The frustration lies in the lack of final product coming from a footballer more than capable of becoming his own style of ‘one-off’ for United. His contribution midweek against Besiktas and earlier in the campaign at Wigan are recent examples of his potential, but at 28-years-old, United need a finished article with consistency and prestige for every game, every week.
Berbatov’s lack of finesse in front of goal today, coupled with Owen’s elevation to hero status, may see a difficult few months for the Bulgarian, potentially competing more with Rooney for a starting spot as the season progresses.