The curious case of Dimitar Berbatov

by Omar Soliman

From £30m to an undisclosed fee thought to be £4m. In the space of four years that is quite the drop in price, especially for a League striker. Then again, Dimitar Berbatov is not your average Premier League striker. Certainly, the British record transfer fee offers an indication of his mercurial talent and peak value. If only he lived up to the price tag and produced what we all knew he was capable of.

Back in 2008, Berbatov was seen as a player who made this striking lark look effortless. He could pluck the ball out of the sky with the deftest of first touches, execute a sublime pass, a bamboozling piece of skill or a devastating finish. Crucially, he had already proven himself in the Premier League after forming a formidable partnership with Robbie Keane at Spurs. Yet at White Hart Lane he was a big fish in a relatively small pond, guaranteed of a starting place but without the pressure that challenging for the top honours brings.

Sir Alex Ferguson had seen enough and his purchase was seen as a coup with rumours of the Bulgarian being bundled into the back of a limousine as he was poised to sign for Manchester City on transfer deadline day. His arrival was greeted by a concourse full of United fans delighted that they had put one over the ‘noisy neighbours’. No-one was complaining back then, as another option had been added to a frontline adept at blurring the lines between attack and midfield.

Therein lies a possible explanation for the multi-million pound misjudgement. No-one could dispute Berbatov’s talent yet arguably this was a case of right player, wrong team. With the poise and balance of a ballerina, Berbatov was adept at finding pockets of space and time on the ball. Ideal for a team to probe for openings, not for a team reliant on speed.

Berbatov in action against Wolves, 2011. Photo: Adrian Dennis (AFP Photo)

Accompanied by Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo, the Bulgarian was like a Rolls Royce entering a Formula One race. At best his style could be described as languid, at worst downright lazy. That is not to say his style was wholly ineffective; in games where United were expected to dominate possession he excelled due to his preference of dropping back and dictating a slow tempo build-up. Yet, these games are few and far between as hat-tricks against the likes of Wigan Athletic and Blackburn Rovers (and arguably Liverpool) saw him gain a reputation as a flat-track bully.

Devoid of the time and space he craved he rarely performed when it mattered or against a higher class of opposition. Many cite the end of the 2009/2010 season as a case in point of his apparent nervousness when he needed to step up. When Wayne Rooney lay clutching his ankle on the Allianz Arena turf in Munich, Berbatov had the chance to prove his doubters wrong.

Yet when called upon he was largely ineffective in the home defeat to Chelsea and subsequent European exit against Bayern when Rooney was rushed back to action. When United travelled to Ewood Park needing a win to remain in the title race the ball fell to the Bulgarian at the death. Here was his final chance of salvation but his nerves were shot, the finish was skewed and the pained expression that followed meant he knew it too. He was no stand-in when it mattered.

The subsequent treatment from his manager was telling. Despite being joint top scorer in the league in 2011, Ferguson could not rely on Berbatov to perform on the big stage, his exclusion from the Champions League Final squad saw the writing on the wall. Despite the omission Berbatov applied himself admirably last season; no histrionics, no disgruntled statements to the press, not even a glance of disdain. He knew his time was up and accepted it without burning bridges.

Even though his worth has diminished, his skills are still in demand as another transfer deadline day rush proved with flirtatious glances towards Florentina and Juventus before Fulham eventually landed his services. At Craven Cottage he will get the gametime he desires and in Martin Jol, a manager who knows how to get the best out of him. He leaves Old Trafford as he arrived, with a poise and class that few strikers possess. Now is another chance to produce what we all know he is capable of.

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