When the rumour that Berbatov’s departure from Old Trafford was imminent took flight, we witnessed perhaps the biggest love-in that the striker has had since he joined the club. It was so great that you wondered whether Berbatov had hauled us to the title single-handedly, and felt a bit sorry for James Collins.
When Berbatov arrived, he joined a strikeforce also consisting of Ronaldo, Tevez, and Rooney. The quartet were almost never deployed together, though Ferguson did use them as a ‘nuclear option’ on occasion – they were tasked with destroying Tottenham when we found ourselves 2-0 down at White Hart Lane, and the result was the best, most exciting half of football we’d played since the 7-1 versus Roma.
Everything gelled that day, and United’s fantastic four looked to be in serious contention for the title of ‘greatest strikeforce ever put together.’ It really did have everything – physicality, work-rate, irresistible pace, guile, technique, and with all four being able to produce magic and score goals. It turned out to be a false dawn – Ferguson, in his caution, or wisdom, rarely used all four together, and the last time we saw the combination was in a futile pursuit in the dying stages of the clash with Barcelona in Rome.
Berbatov, however, stuck around, and improved in successive seasons but has still not found his place at the club. Having fallen foul of Ferguson’s refusal to play him in bigger games, his confidence has wavered, and he has also bizarrely failed to attract the unconditional admiration of the fans enjoyed by the likes of Rooney. It’s hard to imagine a player scoring a hat-trick, involving an overhead kick, to defeat Liverpool and attracting such limited reverence.
And so, I’m prepared to admit that in a pragmatic light, a move makes a lot of sense. PSG were the club rumoured to be making the bid, and a moneyed club short on success would be ideal, as it would mean we’d get good money for an ageing striker who has never fitted into our system, and has plenty of young replacements waiting in the wings.
Yet if we sell Berbatov, we will lose something more valuable – we will lose our swagger. Berbatov fits into a category of players that has, under Ferguson, included Scholes, Ronaldo, and Cantona – the player who gets people off their seats. Nani may be capable of the spectacular, but people are reluctant to vacate their sofas when they know that the outcome is more likely to be a shot wildly blazed into the stands. Berbatov, like the other players named, not only has the capacity for magic, but there’s also the very high probability that when the ball is moved on, we’ll be in a better position than we were previously.
Yes, contrary to the doubters’ views, Berbatov is reliable. Rooney would be our spark if he could be trusted not to give the ball away with a leaden touch or a floated, searching pass to the linesman. And it’s the unpredictability we’ll miss – ways of scoring goals we hadn’t thought of, rather than a small repertoire of simple goals which can at times find itself quickly exhausted
Still, Ferguson’s European record in recent years makes it difficult to question his judgement. Berbatov was unlikely to have been key to either Champions League defeat to Barcelona, and perhaps his style of play really is at odds with the modern game – too slow to put pressure on an opposition backline, not energetic enough to close down midfielders. Instead Rooney has been moved to this role, a player with half of Berbatov’s imagination and reliability with the ball but who never neglects his defensive duties. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the closest player to Berbatov around in terms of style, fell out of favour at Barcelona for similar reasons, and success has eluded him at the highest level in Europe.
So perhaps there isn’t room for imagination anymore. Sheer imagination is no longer for settling tight games between giants, but for unlocking the massed defences of Birmingham and Stoke. The genius who would formerly be the inspirational, talismanic presence is now a squad player to be used in a specific situation. It’s happening elsewhere too – Ronaldo and Messi have been more effective as they have become more flairless, and Barcelona, the greatest team of our age, have a passing game not modelled on the swagger and fearlessness of the great Brazilian sides, or the patience supported by magic of Italian masters, but rather the robotic uniformity we label as boring when practised by Germans.
It’s a painful thought, but if Berbatov wants to be back playing his best football, playing the best role he can for a team, then he should leave. There are plenty of clubs that would be ideal for him, but sadly, United, and anyone else with notions of European dominance, are not one of them. It’ll be sad to see him go, and the memories will remain, but Dimitar – I just want what’s best for you.