Dimitar Berbatov is 30 today. Once upon a time that age seemed to spell decline or the closing of a career. In this day and age, with players looking after themselves the way they do, that doesn’t have to be the case.
Berbatov joined United in what was meant to be his prime as a 27-year-old, which is why we forked out a massive £30m for him. Tottenham Hotspur gave him permission to fly up to Manchester to negotiate a deal with City. There was only one club he wanted to sign for though and left the airport with Sir Alex Ferguson, not even bothering to discuss a deal with City.
Whilst his touch and vision were second to none, Berbatov didn’t score enough goals initially. Only one player assisted more goals in the league that season (van Persie with 11 assists to Berbatov’s 10) but 24 players had scored more than his 9. Still, he was battling it out with Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez to get in those goalscoring positions, which is why he so often dropped deeper and worked as the creative element in our goals. Between his goals and assists, he played a direct part in 30% of the goals we scored in the league. Still, scoring 14 goals in all competitions is the hardly the return you expect from a £30m striker.
Sadly for Berbatov, some fans had made their made up about him already after this first season. Despite Carlos Tevez’s desire to join City, a move Berbatov had shunned, there were people who would have preferred to have that Argie troll in the team. It didn’t matter that he’d only scored 5 goals in 29 games in his last season, because Tevez ‘tried’. Tevez worked hard, ran around lot, chased balls down and looked like he cared. Berbatov had scored more goals than Tevez, had chosen United over City, didn’t whinge about getting dropped for the big games, but for some reason, was the least popular of the pair amongst probably the majority of our fans. Sad.
His second season was better, with him moving up to the 12th highest scorer in the league, but he didn’t do the business in the big games towards the end of the season when he needed him, particularly in light of Rooney’s injuries. Some fans were calling for him to be sold.
“I was disappointed with myself that I could not please all the supporters,” he said later. “I have said before the people of Manchester United are the judges and that is the way it should be. It is their team. I am a guest. A privileged guest.”
When attitude, not just ability, is something that our fans rate so highly, if the treatment Smith and Tevez received despite hardly scoring is anything to go by, it always puzzles me how Berbatov can be so unpopular. The way he speaks about our club and fans is like a player in awe of their situation. When you compare this to the egotistical, self-obsessed mercenaries we see all over the country, it is a rare and admirable trait.
Whilst always a class act in interviews, my favourite was from last year, when he was asked what was the best thing about being a Manchester United player. He smiled, then responded: “being a Manchester United player.”
Any United fan, whether they’ve put their neck on the line defending him or have stood in the stands hurling abuse at him, will be happy to see the turn around in Berbatov this season. We haven’t been playing very well but are in a brilliant position to make it a record 19 titles this May and that is largely because of the goals Berb has scored.
But what’s the difference? Is he suddenly running around like a headless chicken? Is he diving in making challenges left, right and centre? He’s hardly a terrier is he and he’s never going to be. It’s hard to ignore that he does seem to “run around” a bit more and he shoots in situations he might have passed in before, but there’s no radical differences in his game. He keeps the ball as well as he always did, he still gets pissed off with players who don’t look up or play a lazy pass (mainly Nani), he still plays brilliant curling balls with the outside of his boot, he doesn’t bust a gut to win the ball back in the opposition half, he is still surprisingly good at clearing the danger from an opposition corner and he still looks “languid”.
There is an argument to suggest he’s fitter, given the fact he ran 6 miles a day during the summer. Essentially though, he’s just being played further up the pitch. This means he’s either waiting in the box to put the chances away, or he can run at the defence and get a shot away.
In 20 league games, Berbatov has scored 19 goals, created 26 chances (only Nani has created more for us), assisted 2 goals, and 60% of all his efforts on goal have been on target. He’s not just beautiful touches and extraordinary vision any more, he’s got plenty of end product too.
He scored a hattrick against Liverpool, one of three he’s scored this season, as well as scoring two vital goals in the last 20 minutes of our 3-2 win over Blackpool, he scored both goals in our 2-0 win over Sunderland, the opening goals against Newcastle and Birmingham as well as scoring goals to secure the point against Everton and Birmingham away.
This isn’t to go over the top, to claim he’s doing something out of the ordinary here. He didn’t ask for the price tag but we did have to pay a massive amount of money for him. He had a slow beginning to his United career and deserved better support and encouragement from our fans, but it’s brilliant to see him shining the way he is right now. Long may it continue.
“This crowd at Old Trafford. The way I feel right now. I’m not tired. I feel alive. I have always said I am so lucky to play here. For these people. For this manager. For this club. With these players. I can’t describe it.”
Happy Birthday Berba.