Date: 26th April 2010 at 5:25pm
Written by:

Dimitar Berbatov still divides United fans but right now I do not want to reflect on his performances throughout the season. Right now I want to ask a question: did he do well against Spurs on Saturday?

United won 3-1 and created quite a lot of chances even in Rooney’s absence, with Berbatov playing as a lone frontman, in theory supported by Giggs, in practice often left hopelessly alone (yes, kudos to Ryan for the perfect penalties but he had a poor game, no matter how much we love him).

Berbatov himself posed very little actual threat. He had one good chance and wasted that as well and barely looked like scoring. However, he kept the ball well, linked the play and distributed it to a good effect.

Does that mean he was good? It depends on what do you expect from the main striker. United do not really have goalscoring midfielders and of the wide men only Nani is capable of playing as an inside forward and not as a traditional winger. Therefore in our 4-3-3 the main striker’s job is to score goals first and foremost even if he also has to contribute to the build-up. In other words, he has to be a complete striker.

If we consider this, Berbatov was a failure, again, as he fulfilled the role of a false number nine or that of an attacking midfielder but he wasn’t either of those things. Earlier in the season I criticized Fergie for talking about ‘misusing’ Berbatov last season then continuing to play him as a second striker. Now I still do not understand why he was talking about misusing Berbatov but it’s clear now that he can only play as a second striker.

The problem with this is that currently, Berbatov is a luxury. He is a very skilful, devastatingly creative player but he does not cover too much ground and his lack of pace makes him unsuited for an attacking midfielder role. Playing him as a second striker is a bit of a luxury against the biggest teams because it exposes the midfield. He is effective in a 4-4-2, playing second fiddle to Rooney but we can afford that against the best teams because it would require two very defensive-minded midfielders to accomodate Berbatov – we would have to play Fletcher and Hargreaves together, for instance – but that could lead to insufficient midfield support for the men up front.

Based on the evidence, it seems to me that he’s simply unsuited for the biggest clubs where pressure is huge. He has wonderful natural ability but the balance of his skills makes him very difficult to accomodate. He can be a decisive influence against teams with less ability but he has a habit of disappearing completely in tight tactical battles against the best defenders. His natural level seems to be a team pushing for Europe, not a title-chasing, Champions League-hunting side.

I’ve been a defender and fan of Berbatov ever since he’s arrived but he’s running out of time. I do not buy into the theories that he ‘does not care’ and ‘does not work hard enough’: these are red herrings. I think that his skills are unsuited to the tactical demands of modern football’s biggest sides. It’s taken me a long time to concede this point but now I can’t find more excuses for him. He was good against Spurs – good for a false number nine or for an attacking midfielder. But he was supposed to be a striker.