The past two months could not have gone much better for Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United. The Premier League title, which once looked to be slipping out of reach, is now theirs to lose, with Manchester City’s challenge hitting the rocks at the worst possible moment. Manchester United are once again looking down from the summit on the rest of the league – just like old times. It has been a testing campaign, but the smiles are back on full display at Old Trafford.
Well, on most faces anyway. Amid all the optimism that has surrounded the champions’ resilience, a player who has never quite fitted the bill in Manchester is planning his exit. Dimitar Berbatov, via his agent Emil Danchev, has revealed that his future lies away from the club, bringing down the curtain on a Manchester United career that promised so much but delivered far less. A move away from Old Trafford is now inevitable, with Turkish giants Galatasaray emerging as one of his main suitors.
While some signings have always looked a perfect fit in a Manchester United shirt – Phil Jones or Javier Hernandez, for example – Berbatov’s spell under Ferguson has been an on-off affair, packed with spectacular highs and frustrating lows. Signed for over £30M from Tottenham Hotspur, it was a gamble than did not quite pay off. As for his legacy, only time will tell.
Danchev explained: "We accept that Ferguson wants to build a new style of play, based around speed. The future of United does not involve Berbatov. We know this."
"We have a big squad and you know sometimes you are not going to play", commented Berbatov earlier in the season. "It’s sad and it’s painful but you need to be strong and be prepared for when your team-mates need your help. We are a team and we want to win together." Despite seeing limited playing time, the Bulgarian striker certainly deserves credit for not airing his grievances publicly this season or becoming a distraction.
On the one hand, it was easy to see Ferguson’s vision when he splashed out on the Bulgarian back in 2008 – he was penned in to be Eric Cantona 2.0, a different option, an unpredictable genius and a big game match-winner. Berbatov had embraced a similar role at Tottenham, providing moments of magic that defied belief.
But from the second he arrived in Manchester, it was unclear as to how Berbatov would fit into the Red Devils line-up and whether he could adapt his game to suit a more up-tempo approach that called for movement off the ball and a relentless work ethic. Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez had led the attack en route to a Premier League and Champions League double in 2008 – and it was hard to see how Ferguson could accommodate the three strikers in addition to Cristiano Ronaldo.
For Manchester United fans, the biggest mark against Berbatov has seemingly always been his attitude on the pitch. From the lethargic work-rate to the questionable body language, the Bulgarian often has the look of a man who does not particularly care about the outcome of the game. He has adamantly rejected this notion – but clearly the concept of defending from the front has been lost in translation.
When he was on song, his laid back approach was tolerated – but as his performances dipped so did his confidence, making the apparent lack of effort suddenly unacceptable. The Bulgarian’s natural talent has never been in doubt, however the application of that talent is the head-scratching part.
There have unquestionably been some prominent highlights – a purple patch during the first half of the 2010/11 season – when Berbatov could have been classed as one of the first names on the teamsheet. But even that year, by the time the season ticked round to Ferguson’s "squeaky bum time", the striker was back on the bench watching his team-mates surge towards the title. He has now slipped so far down the pecking order that he is fortunate to make the teamsheet at all.
Berbatov has been unlucky, in a sense, that competition for places has been so hot. The Rooney-Tevez partnership was in place when he arrived at Old Trafford, not to mention the leading role that Ronaldo played prior to his move to Real Madrid. Then in the post-Ronaldo era, and with Tevez moving to Manchester City, it was Hernandez who burst onto the scene, snatching playing time away from Berbatov. This season, Danny Welbeck has also made giant strides and might even be Ferguson’s preferred strike partner for Rooney. As Danchev correctly noted, the need for speed is becoming clearer and clearer across European football – and that does not play to the Bulgarian’s strengths.
How will Berbatov be remembered at Old Trafford? Perhaps as a player whose Manchester United career was an expensive gamble by Ferguson that never quite worked out, with the Bulgarian falling into the "good but not great" category. His hat-trick against Liverpool – capped by the match-winning bicycle kick – and his five-goal burst against Blackburn Rovers will not be quickly forgotten. Nor will the ease with which he could control awkward passes or find team-mates with a clever flick. Even as he spent more and more time on the bench, he scored important goals.
But the Bulgarian failed to develop into a player that his manager trusted in the big moments on the biggest stages. In Champions League final in 2009 Berbatov came off the bench with less than 25 minutes to go. In the same showpiece two years later he was not even named in the squad. Run through a list of Manchester United’s biggest games between 2009 and 2012 – the Bulgarian has rarely seen major minutes. And that is particularly telling.
Ultimately, Berbatov was a victim of the lofty standards at Old Trafford. Talent alone is not enough to hold down a first team place – and he never seemed to fully grasp that fact. With Ferguson unable to offer the Bulgarian a significant role in the years ahead, this summer is the right time for the two to go their separate ways.