Dimitar Berbatov and the criticisms that don’t quite add up

Dimitar Berbatov faces an uncertain future after missing out on the Champions League final squad

"You say what?"

No wonder he frowns all the time. Dimitar Berbatov must be wondering what he’s done so wrong in his Manchester United career; while he isn’t flawless nor is he immune from criticism there is something that sets Berbatov apart from the rest. He is the darling of the aesthetes and rather unorthodox for a forward, meaning he will not be appreciated by all corners as, say, Javier Hernandez. And when there are admirers, there are those who object.

Football is quite simple; and there has never been a player, no matter how great, without a flaw. From all the criticism Berbatov seems to get, many seem to be unjust – in fact, this article, written by a realist rather than an apologist, attempts to explode the myths and other unfair labels. (Amidst all the recent speculation over his career, and some discouragingly infuriating comments on Twitter, I felt this needed to be done…)

“He cost £30m, so he must do better. I demand it!”

If Andy Carroll turns out to be what the lovely people at the media label a ‘flop’, then many will point to his £35million price tag with unforgiving eyes. It’s a tad unfair on him if that were to happen; after all, he is no control of what a team pays for him. In fact, it is perhaps more flattering for every extra millions of pounds. For Berbatov, his actual valuation should have no bearing of what you think of him as a player – the transfer market has changed over time and has rapidly become inflated (see Joleon Lescott). In truth, his value is still somewhere in the region of £20m+ if you were to consider talent rather than age or an expiring contract; not to mention that his three years for the club have been convincing enough, regardless. This essay analysis of Berbatov is essential reading.

“That bloody Bulgarian needs to score goals, damn it!”

Ah, these days were fun. He cost £30m so he should score. Blah, blah. The fickleness of some; while it was true that Berbatov had scored frequently for both Bayer Leverkusen and Tottenham, he was not signed for his goals alone. His link up play and ability to drop deep and allow others to get involved in play has been effective; both Carlos Tevez and Wayne Rooney would agree. That said, his conversion rate for United is still something for others to desire.

“I’ve change my mind. Now, I think goals aren’t everything.”

For the dissenters nowadays, there is a very popular argument – that “goals aren’t everything” so being joint recipient of the Golden Boot last season doesn’t matter for the player who scored 20 times. It’s quite frankly laughable – indeed, it was the same people who moaned about the lack of conversion in previous seasons from the delightful Bulgarian. When you think about, no, Berbatov is not your typical goalscorer – that’s not his game but that’s what made last season all the more extraordinary. The word ‘genius’ is an apt description of this man and not such hyperbole; for he started the season in a rather unfamiliar (in his United career, that is) higher position and was able to adjust with much success.

“He’s not a big game player. End of story.”

This is one is certainly unfair rather than untrue. This argument really came to prominence in the 2009/10 season – but statistics show that United picked up 52 points against the bottom half that season, but only 33 against the top sides. What that suggests is that United really haven’t flourished in the so-called “big games” – and for a player to effective, the other ten around him have to click also. That aside, he has performed notably in two games of importance – the 3-0 win against Chelsea in 2009, and then the 3-2 triumph over Liverpool in September 2010. In the latter, he scored a hattrick – meaning many had climbed onto his bandwagon. As you do.

“He’s lazy, don’t you know? And he sulks!”

Lazy? Not on Berbatov’s watch – “I’m not lazy – I just make everybody else look good!.” Ironically, dismissing him as ‘lazy’ is perhaps a rather lazy thing to say; while his unfazed exterior screams a man who can’t be bothered, he’s actually far more active than given credit for. His failure to track back might remain an issue; but that doesn’t suggest he is ‘lazy’, more so that he’s just like many other forwards on the planet. Instead, lazy should be defined as somebody who doesn’t care and so doesn’t really contribute – yet Berbatov does so by creating chances and making space. In the 09/10 season, he actually created more goalscoring chances per 90 mins in open play last season than any striker in the league (via @OptaJoe) – and the year previous, created the second most assists in the League. That does not sound a player who fails to contribute.

“But he sulks,” I hear you say. True, but that’s only a problem because people have made it so. After being left out of the Wembley Final, he admitted he was very upset not to play, but seemed defiant to do better – as if it was his fault, which is certainly was not. Furthermore, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney are no strangers to sulking – in fact, they’re probably guilty of doing it more often than the Bulgarian. But, of course, we won’t say that about them. Inconsistencies of a football fan, this is.

“He missed chances against Manchester City. Grab your pitchforks!”

When Yaya Toure put City 1-0 in the FA Cup Semi Final last season, fingers were pointed at two men; Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov. It would seem understandable because Carrick was not only below-par but it was his error that led to the decisive goal. Berbatov, however, is the man we shall focus on – he missed chances. And good ones, too. Most of the time he’d put them away, but not in this game. So it is fair to criticise him partly for the defeat; however, that is no game to base your judgements on him. Indeed, most people who cite this game dismiss the 7-1 win over Blackburn where Berbatov scored five goals – concluding that it’s highly unlikely that’ll happen again. Obviously, five goals is just an everyday achievement any random fool can do it.

Plus, he isn’t the first centre forward to miss chances. There’s evidence here, here and here. And here.


13 responses to “Dimitar Berbatov and the criticisms that don’t quite add up”

  1. Doron Salomon says :

    Interesting. Some very good points raised; certainly I’ve never known a player to split fans so much.

    Potentially you could a piece about the fair criticisms too:

    – He’s struggled in Europe
    – It’s debatable whether he really suits the way the team try to play
    – He’s never formed a true understanding/partnership with any striking partner specifically
    – Aware that goals aren’t everything but his record against the big league teams isn’t good

    The concept of him being lazy is one of the most infuriating things in football. I admire him and think he’s one of the few entertainers at the club but whilst his genius and magic is fantastic, it tends to be sporadic. Despite my wanting him when he signed, I look back and generally come to the conclusion that it was the wrong signing at the wrong time.

    • The Gaffer says :

      That’s a big call Doron.

      Anyway, let’s try to answer your criticisms objectively;

      – He’s struggled in Europe

      That is true; his 2010-11 campaign was poor and even I was shocked by that. It’s fair – but hasn’t entirely been the case. In 09-10, he only started one game and made five other sub appearances so 0 goals in that year is perhaps a little more understandable. In 08-09, I remember was rather good; and just looking at his stats, 4 goals from 5 starts and 4 sub appearances is decent, which backs up my point.

      It’s debatable whether he really suits the way the team try to play

      That we will never know – as you say it’s debatable. A true reflection of how well he suits the team is how well he plays and how effective he is, quite simply.

      – He’s never formed a true understanding/partnership with any striking partner specifically

      True – maybe I’m clutching, but I’d like to think he’s never really had the chance. Certainly, there was a period with Tevez where they looked to compliment each other and Rooney, too – shown by the link below.


      – Aware that goals aren’t everything but his record against the big league teams isn’t good

      Yep, but neither is United’s. That’s not the strongest argument, I know, but it is fair in the sense that you can’t expect him to do well when others aren’t either..

      Cheers for the comment!

    • Buster says :

      Haha! Your comment is perfect example of double standards that timbo is talking about. GET A LIFE.

  2. decolanga says :

    this o a brilliant piece,i like the use of sarcasim.the haters should read this,sulking?haters should read this commendable piece.

  3. Ando says :

    i dont get what the probelm is, do you think his contract will be renewed? if not, then you want him to stay on for another season then leave on a free? Selling him off makes sense when you consider his contract, age and the fact he’ll be on the bench more often than not. And clearly Fergie has shown he’d much rather have Owen getting him a goal than Berba. Its not fair on Berba i agree but if a player doesnt really fit into a system then theres not much you can do. Joint Top goalscorer, he and Nani carried the team for parts of the season, hes got unique qualities but if hes not sold this summer, hes walking out on a free next year.

    • The Gaffer says :

      I’m just bringing this up because many are still divided; and his future is in ‘doubt’ if you want to believe twitter rumours. I personally think we can extend his contract. Why does he have to leave this year or next?

  4. timbo says :

    For a piece that sets out to defend the player, it’s remarkable how much the author recycles and perpetuates many of the myths surrounding the Bulgarian – and adds some new ones!

    The guy is a poor partner – could you get more outrageous than this statement? Berbatov possesses the kind of vision, situational awareness, skill and team orientated thinking that make him the ideal foil for any strike partner. He’s also extremely unselfish, as evidenced by the goals he gifted away this past season where other players (such as Rooney or Nani) would have taken the shots themselves. His assists record speaks for itself, and I would suggest to any naysayers that they look back to his time at Tottenham for evidence of how much Keane benefited from his association with the Bulgarian – and how much his career suffered for the break-up of the partnership.

    The only reason his partnership with Rooney has never worked as effectively as it should is because of the Englishman and HIS notorious reputation for being a difficult strike partner – little wonder that Berbatov throws his hands up in frustration at times, when Rooney, the ultimate leech, gives so little back and so obviously lacks the ability and intelligence to appreciate the state of play in the way that Berbatov often does. Look at Rooney’s near legendary inability at national level to form a decent partnership with just about anyone as further evidence of where the problems lie.

    The fact is that Berbatov and Hernandez showed a great deal of promise as a partnership early in the season and should have been given every chance to allow the association to blossom, particularly when Rooney was in such abysmal form during the first 3 – 4 months. But unfortunately Rooney is the golden child where Fergie is concerned, the over-rated, over-hyped centrepiece to his plans for conquest, and no amount of loutish behaviour, displays of abject greed and petulant demands, of months mired in sub par performances and an inability to score, could induce the Scot to plant the Englishman’s arse on the bench where it belonged – or have it kicked out the door of Old Trafford entirely!

    The double standards applied to Rooney, and Fergie’s penchant for playing favourites, have been Berbatov’s undoing, particularly during the first half of the season when the Bulgarian was clearly the form forward of the EPL – only at United could a player score five goals in a game and then get dropped – for an out of form Wayne Rooney! Sacrifices, accommodations, concessions, all will always be a part of United while Rooney maintains a place within the team, and all will ultimately be of detriment to the ambitions of the club, and of the individuals who have to play alongside him.

    The ultimate example was the game against Barcelona, when Fergie committed football suicide by selecting a 4-4-2 formation that pandered to Rooney’s need for a foil up front and left the midfield ripe for the picking by arguably the greatest midfield combination ever assembled on a football field. Make no mistake, Rooney may have scored a goal but United lost due to the lack of physique, strength, and technique on his part that so often make him a liability as a solo striker against quality defences. Hernandez was played in order to allow Rooney to drop into his favoured role as a deep-lying second striker – but doing so removed a much needed body from the engine room, allowing Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets to run riot against an aging former winger in Giggs and a player in Carrick who’d been shattered by his previous experiences against the Catalan magicians. Chicharito, of course, did nothing to warrant his selection up front other than to highlight his frustrating penchant for allowing the linesmen to exercise their arms – for a player of his pace and acceleration, that is unforgivable.

    Barcelona are the artists of European football, the intellectuals of the football pitch, and as they have so aptly demonstrated time and time again, there’s no need in their game plan for yardage totals, brute strength and pace, all the hallmarks of British football that are so demonstrably behind the times where world football is concerned. Sadly, in Berbatov, United have a player straight out of the Barcelona mold, a player of such skill, vision, and intelligence that he would easily bear comparison to another player of similar build and talent, Johann Cruyff, were he plying his trade with a more astute club or a more prominent national side.

    The trials and tribulations of Berbatov at United are indicative of the team’s underlying weaknesses, starting with the manager and working on down. Fergie is the ultimate football pragmatist, a man who’s talent and persona are built for the British way of playing football. While he has been, and will remain, an architect of sides well capable capable of bringing home domestic trophies, he will always retain the image of being something of an enigma in Europe due to his inability to really come to terms with the requirements of Continental football. Certainly, United have taken Europe’s top trophy twice under his leadership, but truth be told neither win was pretty or convincing, and the second championship owed as much to the Chelsea skipper slipping on to his arse as anything else. Two wins spaced over 25 years is nothing to write home about, particularly with the resources that have been available to the club for much of that time, and it bears noting how often United have crashed out of the tournament at the group stages, a less than savoury statistic for a club of such high repute and ability.

    Given the huge amount of money expended on Berbatov, one wonders why Fergie went to so much trouble and expense to acquire the player when it’s clearly been evident that he’s had no inclination to commit to the Bulgarian at all in terms of the kind of playing style that would have best suited his considerable talents. I personally fancy that Fergie may have made the purchase, in a wistful moment, with a view to conquering Europe in a style befitting and best suited to the Continental style – all lost, unfortunately, in the hurly burly of the EPL as he tried to fit the square peg that is Berbatov into the round hole that is United.

    I hope they do move Berbatov on, because he deserves far better than the treatment he’s received at Old Trafford over the last few years. Those who claim the player sulks have no idea what they’re talking about – given the abysmal treatment he received last season, the Bulgarian conducted himself with sheer class and style throughout, far removed from the kind of garbage we’ve come to expect from the likes of Tevez, Ronaldo and Rooney.

    I have been a loyal fan of United for well over forty years, yet nothing has been as off-putting for me as the disgraceful behaviour towards Berbatov and the double standard shown to Wayne Rooney, particularly by a manager who seems to be making the same mistakes that Sir Matt Busby made with George Best in his last couple of seasons at United. I personally can’t wait to see the back of Rooney, and will consider it a breath of fresh air when he finally leaves, because I consider him a blight on the club, off the field and on it. I’m also starting to incline towards the belief that Sir Alex’s use by date is up, as he seems to be more mindful of his legacy these days than doing what’s right for the club, and also seems inclined to the kind of behaviour one associates with those who’ve come to be far too comfortable with the reigns of power and bristle at any question of their authority or judgement. The displays of pettiness and vindictiveness, the lack of graciousness, are also become a little too prevalent. Busby would never have put himself above the club, or the game for that matter, in the manner in which Fergie seems to be indulging himself these days.

    • The Gaffer says :

      Oh, to appease Timbo…

      Fair comments (longer than the article itself!) and I’m absolutely loving the comparisons to Cruyff; although you do tend to reach for the hyperbole in many cases – I know from some of your previous comments that you’re not the biggest fan of Wayne Rooney, nor Ryan Giggs and here again it is Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez to whom you share ill feelings towards which means that it’s difficult to really take your comment seriously. It appears you tend to go against the grain – but so much so, that I’ve never seen the like.

      But looking past that, I am on your wavelength. It was rather peculiar that Berbatov did not play – and I think Sir Alex regrets it – but hindsight is a wonderful thing. Anyway, I like your assessment of Berbatov and cannot agree more…

      You say that I have “recycled” and/or “perpetuated” the myths and made up my own, can you direct me to those? Also, not once did I say Berbatov was a bad partner.

    • a girl says :

      In a new programme on MUTV: Fergie confronts his critics, Alex Ferguson randomly picks an internet warrior and points out why his arguments are total bollocks. This week Sir Alex picked lifelong United fan “Timbo”, but when he turned up at his house Timbo burst into tears and squeaked through the letterbox he was just a wind-up and Fergie was his hero really.

      Because the most successful manager ever knows a bit more about football than you. Or you. Or even you.

  5. IVOR IRWIN says :

    Ha! Ha! Nice one, Timbo. The fact is that Berbatov is playing in England for Ferguson and that this team–whether about to be overhauled or not–was built around supporting Ronaldo and hasn’t adjusted properly since. As was the case with the purchase of Seba Veron earlier, Fergie bringing in a ‘class’ player at ridiculous expense is an issue involving the old man’s sense of caprice. Berbatov’s style worked so well at Spurs and Bayer because they were big, slow and patient, while the opposite is true of Manchester United at their best. Bitching about Rooney when he’s the only true star in British football is futile. Expecting a sometimes brilliant, hubris-crippled mental case to carry the team on his back simply does not work with players like Rooney( or Cassano or Totti). Comparatives with Barcelona are futile, too. They are one of the two top club teams ever. United have done shockingly wiell when you consider how mediocre the hard-working water-carrier players like Fletcher, Gibson and O’Shea really are. There are no statistics to show just how many speedy counterrattacks and breakaways fizzled to nothing once the ball was passed to the spaniel-eyed Bulgar. His ability to screen and hold on to the ball is ooh-ah commendable, sort of like seeing that new girl at work with big boobies, but led nowhere 95% of the time. As long as he’s around, Ferguson, despite some massive character faults, will always be one of the greatest man-managers ever. Losing to Barcelona with the team he had was inevitable, even with better tactics. Favoring Evans over Pique, now that was a cock-up! Selling Berbatov for less than £15M would not be so clever, either.

    • luckystriker says :

      Completely agree with you IVOR IRWIN. I think the comparison between Seba Veron and Berbatov is spot on. There’s no doubting the supreme talent of both men and yet they left most supporters wanting more. Seba was used to bossing the midfield, controlling tempo and linking play, I suppose much like what Xavi does today. He was neither a midfield destroyer, an attacking, goal scoring midfielder nor, god forbid, a winger. Which were precisely the 3 midfield roles open to him in United’s rigid 4-4-2 of Keane, Scholes, Giggs and Beckham. If he were here during Ronaldo’s time, I think he would have prospered.

      In much the same way, Berbatov needs to be heavily involved in forward play for his amazing control, quick-thinking and deft touches to shine. He needs teammates to be on the same wavelength as him, and when they aren’t, we often see his frustration visibly boil over. He also doesn’t match the way United play against the top teams because he’s not quick, and not good on the counterattack and doesn’t pressure the center halves.

      In other words, to get the best out of both of them a team needs to play a certain way, almost building the side around them. The fact that Fergie hasn’t done this leads me to believe that we should sell Berbatov this summer to recoup some of costs. And then I’ll file him into my ‘What Could Have Been’ file alongside Veron.

  6. Avant says :

    I’ve got a criticism. He’s tremendously slow. You set him through on goal with just one defender to get past and he cant beat him. He’s very easy to defend against. Especially one on one. He doesnt even hassle defenders and make life difficult for them like most good srtikers do. Drogba, Chicharito, Rooney, Tevez all try to win the ball back from defenders. The entire Barcelona team does this, but Berba cant be bothered and is too slow to do it. This allows defenders to settle. Sure he’s got silky skills but he can only ever show them against poor teams and poor defenders.

  7. Sleepy Nik says :

    Have we found the new Sleepy?!

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