I’m sure I was not alone amongst United fans in staying up on the night of 31st August 2008, eyes glued to Sky Sports News, in order to see whether the club had clinched the signing of the mercurial Dimitar Berbatov from Tottenham Hotspur. The saga had run all summer yet at 12:31 AM on the 1st September 2008, it came through that the deal had been completed and that the Bulgarian was now a United player.
Hopes were high
In 2007/08, United had won the Premier League and the Champions League, vanquishing all before them with the attacking triumvirate of Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and the 42 goal Cristiano Ronaldo crucial to their success. To me and many other United fans, despite the hefty price tag of £30.75 million, Berbatov was the final piece in the jigsaw, a player that would give United an extra dimension, adding guile and craft to the United front-line with Berbatov’s style of play even evoking comparisons to the legendary Eric Cantona. The rumours that he had turned down an offer from Manchester City only added to the delight that the Bulgarian had signed and the early signs were good; within 3 minutes of his debut at Anfield, Berbatov, selected alongside Rooney and Tevez in a 4-3-3 formation, received the ball, held off the attentions of Jamie Carragher and crossed for the onrushing Tevez to slam the ball past Pepe Reina.
Yet, United went on to lose the game 2-1 with Berbatov largely anonymous; an accusation that was frequently aimed at Berbatov throughout his first season. Many United fans were critical of his languid style and Berbatov became seen as lazy and disinterested, particularly when compared to the energetic Tevez. A view developed, perhaps unfairly, that Berbatov’s place in the starting eleven was unjustified and there were calls for Tevez to be restored as Rooney’s regular partner up front. That is not to say that Berbatov’s first season was a total disappointment; he came up with valuable goals at times – such as the last minute winner away at Bolton – but the overall feeling was that Tevez had been unfairly marginalised due to Berbatov’s price tag. However, it must be remembered that for all of Tevez’s chasing and harrying, he was often let down by a poor first touch and in many ways, his energy covered up deficiencies within his game.
Notwithstanding these deficiencies, United seemed a more potent attacking force with Tevez in the team, his greater speed and harrying skills creating a more fluid attack and allowing Ronaldo and Rooney greater freedom to interchange positions. It was the introduction of Tevez when United were 2-0 down at half-time to Spurs that catalysed the turnaround that ended with a 5-2 win for United and it was Tevez who played a vital role – scoring the equaliser with a delightful backheel – in United’s comeback at Wigan in May 2009 that all but clinched the title. Yet Ferguson was determined to persevere with Berbatov, culminating in the decision not to sign Tevez on a permanent basis. This decision, coupled with the sale of Ronaldo to Real Madrid for a world-record fee of £80 million, meant that Berbatov was going to have to shoulder much more of the goal-scoring responsibility in his second season.
Unfortunately, Berbatov’s form largely mirrored that of his first season with glimpses of magic but a lack of consistency and goal-scoring that resulted in a team over-reliant on the 34-goal Wayne Rooney. Ferguson’s patience seemed to be wearing thin towards the end of the season. When Rooney had to be taken off injured during the 2nd leg of the Champions League Quarter Final against Bayern Munich, and with United needing a goal to progress after Arjen Robben’s goal meant that United would be heading out, Ferguson delayed bringing on Berbatov until the 80th minute, instead preferring to put Nani up-front.
That Ferguson didn’t immediately put his £30.75 million signing on after Robben’s goal was damning. Still, with Rooney going to be out of the weekend’s key game at Blackburn, Berbatov still had a chance to make amends. However, United laboured to a 0-0 draw, a result that ultimately cost them a fourth successive league title, and Berbatov earned the ire of many United fans with his lackadaisical attitude. Having been at Ewood Park myself that day, one image sticks vividly in my mind: the sight of Berbatov stopping and turning around to complain, arms out-stretched, about a misplaced pass. Granted, perhaps this was a normal reaction but in a game that was so vital to United’s season, his demeanour didn’t sit well with the majority of the Darwen End that day.
Quick out of the blocks
Despite a second season in which Berbatov had failed to live up to expectations, Ferguson decided to keep faith in the Bulgarian with the only attacking signing that summer being that of the unheralded Mexican prospect, Javier Hernandez. The overall feeling was that this – his third season at United – was the make or break season for Berbatov and the Bulgarian seemed to respond to Ferguson’s faith. In a lightning start to the 2010/11 season, Berbatov scored 7 goals in the opening 6 games, including a hat-trick in the 3-2 win over Liverpool at Old Trafford in which he became the first United player to score a hat-trick against Liverpool since Stan Pearson in 1946. Although Berbatov then went 10 games without a goal, Berbatov, ably supported by Nani, largely carried the team in the first half of the season whilst Rooney was beset by injury and loss of form following his highly controversial threat to leave and subsequent contract negotiations.
The second half of the season however was a different story. Whereas Berbatov had been a regular starter in the first half of the season, from February 2011 onwards, Berbatov only made 5 league starts (8 in all competitions). The emergence of Hernandez coupled with a revitalised Rooney meant that Berbatov was often confined to the bench.The decision to oust Berbatov from the starting eleven may have appeared harsh but most United fans agreed that a Hernandez/Rooney partnership was the most viable option. Rooney, having recovered some semblance of form, was always going to be starting and in Hernandez, United looked to have unearthed a goalscoring gem. His predatory instincts, rapid speed and constant movement unsettled defenders. And whilst Berbatov had scored a lot of goals, he was not a regular goalscorer. In 19 PL starts up to February 2011, Berbatov scored 19 goals. To the naked eye, that appears a frighteningly excellent statistic yet, as is often the case with stats, one that is misleading, of those 19 goals, 15 of them had come in 5 games. Berbatov would have games where everything he hit went in – such as his 5 goal masterclass vs. Blackburn in November – whilst at other times, he was terribly profligate; a word that no-one could associate with Hernandez that season.
For that reason, it was entirely understandable that Ferguson preferred Hernandez alongside Rooney. Having been enjoying his best season at United to date, Berbatov suddenly found himself displaced by a young Mexican who hadn’t been expected to contribute much in his first season at the club. Quite understandably, Berbatov’s confidence must have been shattered. From February onwards, Berbatov only went on to score 2 more goals that season; although one of these was a vital 87th minute winner for a 10-man United at home to Bolton in March.
The Bulgarian had a chance to stake his claim for a starting place when he was selected for the FA Cup semi-final against arch-rivals, Manchester City. Whilst Ferguson had his eyes on the league and Champions League, to the fans, this was a huge game. A United win would not only allow themselves a shot at the Treble but also deny City from claiming some silverware for the first time since 1976. However, Berbatov failed to deliver, missing two gilt-edged chances in a first-half that United dominated. Yaya Toure went on to score the winner for City in the second half and Berbatov took the brunt of the blame for the defeat, his two misses only further solidifying accusations that he was wasteful and couldn’t be relied upon in the big games. Indeed, Ferguson himself seemed to reach the same conclusion. Despite Berbatov finishing joint-top goalscorer in the league with 21 goals, Ferguson decided that Berbatov wasn’t even worth a place on the bench for the Champions League Final against Barcelona, instead preferring Michael Owen, who had only made 5 starts all season.
Dimitar Berbatov Fact File
- Dimitar started his professional career at CSKA Sofia in 1998
- While at Manchester United, Dimitar has won two Premier leagues, a World Club Cup, a League Cup and a Community Shield
- Dimitar retired from international football for Bulgaria in 2010, having played 77 games (scoring 48 goals)
- Dimitar shared the Premier league Golden Boot in 2010/11 (with Carlos Tevez), scoring 20 goals
Berbatov’s omission from the squad for that game seemingly inferred that Ferguson no longer trusted that Berbatov would deliver for United and so it appeared that he would be leaving in the summer, Surprisingly, however, Berbatov remained at the club although with a much diminished role. This time, it was the emergence of Danny Welbeck, which led to his marginalisation as he only made 11 starts, scoring a respectable 9 goals, in 2011/12. Following his own admission on his Facebook page that he thinks it best if he leaves and United seemingly only awaiting an acceptable offer for his services – a fee in the region of £10 million will probably suffice – it certainly appears that Berbatov will bid farewell to United this summer. It seems fair to say that he has failed to live up to expectations at Old Trafford yet how much this is down to him or down to unrealistic expectations is open to debate.
Since Cantona’s departure, Ferguson has usually opted for a mobile striker, someone who can stretch defences with their pace and movement. Someone who could run the channels while also providing an option over the top. Past United strikers, such as Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Louis Saha, Carlos Tevez, and present United strikers, such as Hernandez, Welbeck and Rooney, spring to mind. Many United fans seemingly wanted or expected Berbatov to be of a similar mould yet Berbatov was never going to be a similar striker to the aforementioned. Unfortunately, as was the case with Juan Sebastian Veron, Berbatov’s languid style hasn’t fitted into the United ethos, one built upon quick, counter-attacking play. So when he departs this summer, I will remember Berbatov for his moments of brilliance – his velvet touch, his pirouette and cross for Ronaldo vs. West Ham, his acrobatic goal vs. Blackburn, his overhead kicks against Sunderland and Liverpool and his backheel vs. Fulham this season – but ultimately as someone who, regrettably, was a square peg in a round hole.