How Dimitar Berbatov’s “Demise” Condemns AVB’s Departure

A dinosaur?

Nary a peep.

That’s what will happen.

As another Premiership campaign bullets down the stretch and Manchester United goes ahead by a few horse lengths, so dribbles to closure the likely Premiership career of a peculiar one, Dimitar Berbatov.

It’s almost incredulous that a player who was last year’s co-Golden Boot winner–20 in the Premiership last year to share the title with the one and only Carlos Tevez–has become such an afterthought both by his manager and by the ravenous English press. Can you name the last Golden Boot winner who was so thoroughly dismissed by the flaks in London as the Bulgarian?

Berbatov has dropped so low on Twitter vitriol and overall fanatical appeal that he’s fallen well below the “Daily Mail Line.”

(The Daily Mail line is the minimum click impact a player’s name brings in so that an English rag feels necessary to write anything–truth, conjecture, about their car, about stealing a donut–in order to drive traffic to their web site. In short, he’s been, pun intended, written off.)

The man, who perhaps is best identified on the pitch now not by the groans of failure but for his awkward shuffling trot with his fists tucked inside his jersey like he’s still warming up–will slink away from the Premiership champ and probably be known as Man United’s most expensive, and worst?, purchase ever–over $30M£ for someone who produced goals, but could not impose his pristine touches and bend a game to his will at the highest level.

But Berbatov’s exoneration of striking duties at Old Trafford signals also the graduation of the club and shows why–after all these years–Sir Alex Ferguson’s still got it as manager. It also condemns yet another Chelsea manager, Andres Villas-Boas, impaled way too early on the roasting spit that is constantly revolving at Stamford Bridge.

No longer good buddies...

When Sir Alex bought “Berba” the idea was to provide a hold-up and disbursement pairing for Wayne Rooney and others to run off of, with the Bulgarian dropping dimes at will. With Ronaldo looking to leave Manchester the following year, Berba would come in and provide someone who would command attention of the opponent’s defense. Of course, he would also be counted on to display some of the silky moves he had done previously and put some balls in the back of the net.

Yet, despite a very respectable goal haul and despite accolades heaped on him as a misunderstood genius at the highest level, Berbatov’s “game”–and his role–is one that is slowly being exterminated across European leagues for the most part with the role of distributor moving a little further back the pitch. You’re either a false nine these days (Rooney, Van Persie) or you’re a physical target man who can threaten or you’re a speedy-slasher guy. A tweener?

The broader trend in global soccer has been for teams to press up the pitch, using a bevy of mite-sized attackers to not only create chances, but to also press the opponents defense (Jurgen, Jurgen).

In the attack, forwards are required to be more active and draw defenders either opening themselves up for a pass or open space for those behind them. Look no further most recently than Pep and Barcelona slotting in 20-year-old Cuenca at “forward” in a key Champion’s League tilt against A.C. Milan last month. Cuenca may have been labeled a “forward” but he stayed wide, merely drawing out the fullback to create space–more a winger who played advanced. Whoa is the striker who stays central and with perhaps effective but little movement.

On defense in this deployment, the rationale is quite simple–and analogous to the change in NFL defenses to employ two decent cover corners and mercilessly blitz the opponent with d-lineman, the linebackers, the safety and the rest of the kitchen sink.

The best players on a team are its attackers or rather should be. They have the speed, the skill, the guile. Soccer is about scoring. If you do not score, you can never win. You can draw, but you can’t win.

If you have a great attackers–see Fernando Torres at Liverpool–it changes everything–everything–behind them. If you have a boatload, even better.

And if your attackers can be convinced and counted on to in effect be your best defenders?

Note: If you don’t believe me, see Wigan’s win over Manchester United yesterday. Manchester United went 4-6 until the 75th minute, merely trying to move the ball up the floor against the “powerhouse” Latics. Wigan were inspired and their dedication to pressing the weaker players in the back–specifically Jonny Evans–won the day.

The notion–for speedy more capable players at all positions, with less of a focus perhaps on stout defending–is a gathering snowball.

The more teams who employ this method up top (Napoli, Barcelona, Manchester City) the more their foes must–at minimum–deal or game plan for it.

Nowhere was the trend more illuminated then in last year’s Champions League Final. Barcelona relentlessly put Manchester United to sleep. Why?

Manchester United had to expend all their energy to move the ball and play defense against Barca’s own relentless forwards that they merely tired and it was curtains for the “home” side. Barcelona was playing Messi and Villa vs. Ferdinand and Vidic. Not Messi and Villa vs. Rooney and Giggs.

This also leads us back to the demise of the great Berba.

Berba’s breed is no longer a viable option at the highest level–that is, a player who plays slowly and deliberately up top and casts aside the notion that active defending is not part of the resume of “true” forwards. (It would be perhaps “interesting” to see Berba in the Xavi role at Barcelona such is his touch in tight spaces and vision, but who am I kidding…). It’s fitting that Chicharito, near opposite to Berba in every way (procurement, game plan, positioning, heritage, hair!) is his replacement.


Long live the Berba


With a faster attack this year and Berba swapped out of the line-up (note: he still has 7 goals in 10 appearances against lesser sides), Manchester United has actually increased their scoring and improved their defense by actually playing higher up the pitch.

Look at the predominance of players who Ferguson has brought in since the ill-fated Berbatov transfer: Antonio Valencia, an attacking winger who can also deputize in defense; Ashley Young, a fleet-footed inverted winger who can also be a play maker, Chicharito, an offball wizard (Cuenca) who can score but is used more to create space and play defense; Phil Jones, a defender-midfielder who has the chops in possession to play in about 6 locations on the pitch. Even David DeGea, a quick goalie who can come off his line must more aggressively than Edwin Van Der Saar ever could.

Do you see Xavi often stray from the center of the pitch? No. Welcome back Paul Scholes. And Mr. Michael Carrick, you sir, owe your career continuing at United to less pressure on the defense in the center of the pitch.

Manchester United is never going to be Barcelona, but Ferguson realized he needed to compete with Barca (and Manchester City) on the pitch from a like-speed for like-speed perspective. Ferguson meshes with tiki-taka like Balotelli with rosary beads, but Fergie needed to counter it.

There was never a finish line in sight.

Now, look down yonder from Manchester to London–where Roman Abramovich brought in Andre Villas-Boas who would be the new Mourinho King.

Look at the players who Villas-Boas procured: David Luiz, a light defending centerback who’s been known to maraud on the wings and even in the box from time-to-time; Kevin De Bruyne, Genk’s speedy left winger; Juan Mata, a jitter-bugging attacking midfielder who switches field better than Bo Jackson in his heyday.

Villas-Boas saw the European challenges his squad with a core of Frank Lampard and even Fernando Torres leading the line would have trying to compete at the highest level. he was bold in his strokes and aggressive in moving Chelsea’s stodgy core forward.

That his firing came because he lost the dressing room and too many games than is acceptable is probably in the end a good thing. If Chelsea’s management and is not able to look at their core side-by-side with how top clubs have changed, then AVB had entered a losing battle when he finished signing his employment contract. Chelsea’s elite blood will now more slowly ebb.

The Blues play Barça next week, and while they got by Napoli (thanks in no small part to Mata thank you very much), Barca move and defend at even faster rate.

How will Chelsea fair and who will they thank or blame?

32 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by dth on 2012/04/12 at 6:22 PM

    Two things:

    1) These things about Berbatov are all true. But I think he deserves plaudits for being entertaining as hell. Few people have the guile and technical tricks he does, and as a fan, I think there’s room to value more than just winning. Would I want Berbatov to anchor my team in a fight for my life? No. Would I love to watch Berbatov on a lazy afternoon? You betcha.

    2) Is it clear Chicharito is Berbatov’s replacement? It seems to me Ferguson prefers Welbeck in many big games.


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2012/04/12 at 6:48 PM

      Fair point on Welbeck. Contrapositive?


      • Posted by dth on 2012/04/12 at 6:56 PM

        I don’t think Welbeck necessarily invalidates your thesis at all; in fact, I think it strengthens it. Welbeck helps much more in the build up than does Chicharito…


    • Posted by Imebong udofia on 2012/05/11 at 2:28 AM

      I agree with you but i think chi-chi is a better scorer


  2. Posted by matthewsf on 2012/04/12 at 6:52 PM

    BTW, I once described Berba, “he’s like your dog on the couch lazy as all hell but one whiff of a treat (goal) and he’s moving like he’s been horse-prodded.”


  3. Posted by alan on 2012/04/12 at 7:04 PM

    I think United are a much weaker team this season. Look at whats happening in Europe. The only reason they are leading the PL is that all other top teams are in disaaray. Berbatov is a much better player than Chicharito or Welbeck and all United games in Europe and even the recent PL games show it. It makes mo sense whatsoever to pay average players like Welbeck or one-trick ponies like Chicha when you have a football genius like Berba!


  4. Posted by lukesandblom on 2012/04/12 at 7:27 PM

    you, sir, have made me realize how little i – and many others in the game, especially players – know about this game. every time you write an article or even tweet about this kind of stuff, i’m totally belittled.


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2012/04/12 at 9:00 PM

      It’s opinion and some research, but thanks. Never be afraid to offer you opinion especially here. There are no absolutes. Great thing about sports.


      • Posted by lukesandblom on 2012/04/12 at 11:54 PM

        i hear you. i wouldn’t say i’m afraid to express opinion, more that i feel like i don’t know enough to speak on some topics and don’t want to say something wrong. want to do my research before asserting my comments, feel like it would give me credibility…


  5. Posted by alan on 2012/04/12 at 7:37 PM

    I think United are a much weaker team this season. Look at whats happening in Europe. The only reason they are leading the PL is that all other top teams are in disaaray. Berbatov is a much better player than Chicharito or Welbeck and all United games in Europe and even the recent PL games show it. It makes mo sense whatsoever to pay average players like Welbeck or one-trick ponies like Chicha when you have a football genius like Berba!


  6. Posted by Jared on 2012/04/13 at 6:35 AM

    Just a nitpick but David Luiz was signed in January 2011. AVB didn’t get to Chelsea until June 2011.

    Chicharito has fallen back to earth this season and probably closer to his actual level. Still has great moves

    If you look at Berba’s peformances and goals last year you’ll see that he got most of them against lower level opposition as well. I believe it was 5 past Blackburn in one game alone. Another 3 against Birmingham. The only real exception was his hat trick against Liverpool but even that’s relative in terms of quality of opposition.

    It is too bad for Berba because when he is on his game he is one of the better players to watch. Just such smooth touch and ability to put the ball wherever he wants. I also think though that he has effort issues so not only is he not fast enough to defend from the front he doesn’t even try to do that job.

    Welbeck has no place being on the field for Man Utd. All he does is blast shots over the bar or directly at the keeper when set up beautifully.


  7. Posted by Jared on 2012/04/13 at 6:46 AM

    I for one can not wait for the downfall of Chelsea due to Abramovich allowing morons like John Terry to control the direction of the club. Sticking with the aging core of Drogba, Terry and Lampard clearly will work out better in a competition like the Champions League rather than the Premier League because there are fewer games.

    When the wheels fall off it will take them several years to get back to the top if Abramovich is willing to dump a lot more money into the club. I don’t see any of the young players on that team being ready to step into the gap because the older players seem to resist any change in the squad. That may cost them European spots because of FFP (not sure this will happen because I’m not sure if FFP will ever have the teeth that UEFA wants people to believe it will have). When you look at the younger players that were brought in such as Lukaku they have barely played at all and it will hurt the club going forward. The other young players like Bertrand and McEachran are being held back as well due to lack of rotation.


  8. Posted by JGD on 2012/04/13 at 7:33 AM

    Sad to see such a talented player tossed to the wayside. I hope Sir Alex lets him walk this summer; I have no doubt he’ll be able to catch-on in one of the top leagues (if not with another BPL squad). Berbatov remains valuable for one simple reason: he scores goals. Perhaps against shoddy competition this year, but he’s still struck 9 in all competitions. That’s 1 fewer than Welbeck in 16 fewer games (granted, they have different roles for ManU, as TSG pointed out).

    I look forward to watching Berba trounce around the Prem (hopefully) again next season.


  9. You think he could go to a top Italian club (not named Napoli) and thrive, maybe like a (slightly) poor man’s Ibra? When you were describing the limitations of a player like Berba in the modern game, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ibra’s time at the Nou Camp. He’s done pretty well for himself since going to Milan. Maybe a transfer to Roma or Juve could do the trick for Berbatov? I’ll be honest when I say I’m not super intimate with either roster, or even the tactics at either club, but the few times I’ve watched each this year, I feel like they’re sticking to the Italian Old Guard. I feel like Berba might be a nice fit.


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2012/04/13 at 9:54 AM

      I’d like to see him at Juventus or Parma. Maybe even Udinese.


    • Posted by EFG on 2012/04/13 at 10:10 AM

      Not a fit at Roma. Enrique is trying his best to install a “Barca-like” style of play, though the degree of his success can be argued. Re: Parma, could he be motivated to play for a bottom club? Re: Udinese, possible but I feel he and Di Natale play the same role and no one is supplanting Di Natale.


  10. Posted by llimllib on 2012/04/13 at 9:29 AM

    Should a German team look to pick up Berba? Are the Germans are the only ones left playing “real 9s”, with Gomez and Lewandowski striking for the top two clubs?

    side note: “Woah” should be “woe”, and “fair” should be “fare”.


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2012/04/13 at 9:54 AM

      Serie A for sure. Given Serie A’s still penchant for slow play in the attack…he may be a good fit.


  11. Posted by SamT on 2012/04/13 at 9:50 AM

    Question… So Berba is a “tweener” and unable to find playing time at United. Dempsey also is a tweener, plays constantly at Fulham, and is a top scorer in the league. Does the difference lie in the nature of their tween-ness, the nature of their clubs, or something else?

    I honestly don’t know the answer here, but I am very curious in what Matt and the TSG commentariat might have to say on it.


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2012/04/13 at 9:53 AM

      I think my connection was rough for sure. I think the style is more what is different. Quite simply Dempsey will *move on defense and in the attack to get players open.

      Berba never does this. I was sort of waiting for someone to pick up on this and I think I’ll find a way to re-write.


    • Posted by JGD on 2012/04/13 at 9:55 AM

      I think Dempsey is a tweener between two-positions, midfielder and forward, whereas Berbatov is a tweener between two-roles in the same position, forward. At least that’s the way I understand it.


    • Posted by Jared on 2012/04/13 at 11:08 AM

      I think it has to do with the nature of their play as well as the nature of their clubs. Dempsey has routinely been left out initially by new managers due to his tween-ness. Then due to his hardnosed attitude and skill he’s become an integral part of the team under each of those managers. Compare that to Berba who never really seems all that bothered to hang out on the bench.

      Throw in the fact that at Man Utd, Berba can easily be replaced with a couple of full internationals or left out completely if they go 4-5-1 with another full international going on the wing or in midfield. At Fulham there is zero depth and not a lot of money to bring in new players so the manager has to be more willing to stick with a player who is a bit of a tweener. I also think that Dempsey has moved out of the tweener role and into a new role, straight baller. Put him in the lineup anywhere on the wing, attacking mid or out and out striker as he was against Chelsea and he’ll do the job.


  12. Posted by KickinNames... on 2012/04/13 at 11:47 AM

    I think, much like Clint, Berba would score 20-25 goals per year with steady playing time at a midlevel club. Way too talented but he’d drive his manager and teammate crazy with his “out on a walkabout” approach to the game.


  13. Posted by Joe on 2012/04/13 at 12:22 PM

    You say Berbatov doesnt move much in the game.. All that tells me is that you listen to other people who slag off Berbatov for no reason.. Because if you watch he does move.. Usually doesnt have to because he’s open for a pass.. and thats the only time when i see him complaining.. when he doesnt get the pass.. and then the opportunity is wasted.. He does seem lazy.. and ill agree.. in chasing the ball he lacks in motivation.. but he does have his moments of defending.. and does come back for every corner/freekick to defend..


  14. Posted by Dobromir on 2012/04/14 at 8:18 AM

    I can’t hide that I am kind of annoyed by this article, but this is simply because the writer has a different view on the situation and the game itself.

    In my opinion, Berbatov has played a vital part for United and performed admirably in his games for the reds. His style is divine and anyone who does not recognize that, I advise to look closer (e.g. look in youtube and see what moments of magic he creates for all the teams he has played for throughout the years including United).

    In my opinion, the article is wrong when saying that forwards have to be the best players in the teams for the simple reason, that you can’t compare them with each other. In fact, every position is equally vital for the team’s success. The keeper and defender’s primary job is to keep the ball out of the net which is equally vital as scoring the goals in the opponent’s net (which is the attacker’s job). The midfield players are equally vital, even I would say the most vital players, as they create the chances for the attackers. Without good midfield play, the forwards can’t do anything (but they get all the bad press for having no chances during a game)!

    What I’m trying to say, is that it’s not the forward’s JOB to make their chances. Football is primarily a TEAM game, and it seems like the author of that article doesn’t grasp that. It seems to me that him and most United fans are looking too much at individual skill, instead of looking at the big picture (e.g. if a forward can’t create his own chance by running from the middle at quick pace and scoring the vital goal himself, then he must be better, than the guy who sits at the penalty area at the right place at the right time and slots the ball in.) . Please, take a look at Berbatov’s goals for the other teams he has played in, which are much worse than United, but had something extra in terms of team play. I’m not saying that there is no team play in MU, I’m just pointing out, that Berbatov never got his team mate’s respect, like in other teams he has been in, and therefore he got less and could not present his usual game in big games.


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2012/04/17 at 8:47 AM

      I’m the writer of this piece and I loved your comment. Thanks for writing it. All very fair points.


    • Posted by schmutzdeck on 2012/05/12 at 8:32 AM


      “I’m not saying that there is no team play in MU, I’m just pointing out, that Berbatov never got his team mate’s respect, like in other teams he has been in, and therefore he got less and could not present his usual game in big games. ”

      A big part of team play is gaining the respect of your teamates. At some level you are claiming Berbatov did not do that and consequently, his teamates did not work with him as they might have with others.

      So whose fault is that? Every player on MU”S roster can be presumed to have a certain level of skill but if Berbatov lacked the abilty to win the respect of his teamates is that his fault or theirs? What can you do with such a player?


  15. Posted by evelkov on 2012/04/17 at 8:42 AM

    there is something like football statistics, it’s quite easy to check Berbatov’s numbers – minutes played, distance covered, goals, goal passes, etc. You will be amazed by his productivity.


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2012/04/17 at 8:50 AM

      I would also say there is such thing as cause and effect and in the 2010’s forwards can’t just be relied on to score because it’s not consistent enough. They have to do more. They have to be a threat. They have to play defense. They have to be moving.

      I’m not saying that this didn’t exist before. It’s just that now, the game is so fast so good….

      As for Berbatov’s stats–quite good–but he virtually never played against the harder sides in the Prem over the past 2 years. If you put a Championship level striker in United’s system for those game, they’d have quite good numbers as well.


  16. […] due to teams playing further up the field on defense. (For a concise argument on this case, see our piece on Dimitar Berbatov a few months […]


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