The year is 1996. The All New Manchester United juggernaut has just driven relentlessly to the Premier League and FA Cup double, sneering past the wheezing, spluttering, broken down Alfa Romeo of Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle on its way. The chance arises, that summer, to buy a young starlet from France, Zinedine Zidane. While there is no doubting his talent, where does he play? Who would miss out to accomodate the playmaker? Why overhaul the successful machine in the infancy of its powers? This major quandry means that United and Sir Alex Ferguson (or just Alex, as he was in those innocent days) turn down the chance to purchase him, leaving Juventus free to fill their boots.
Sound thinking, as it turns out, as United’s juggernaut goes on to win 4 more league titles, an FA Cup and a Champions League.
Eleven years later then, after winning a league and Champions League double with a young team and most importantly a young forward line, Ferguson purchases Dimitar Berbatov for £32.5m. In the end he took a gamble similar to that which derailed his previous juggernaut (the Veron signing), and gave himself the headache he chose to avoid – for a man who became one of the greatest players of the modern era – just over a decade earlier. Where does he play? Who misses out? Why overhaul the successful machine in the infancy of its powers?
Ferguson answered some of these questions more than adequately, he retained the league title and almost the Champions League (adding the Carling Cup too), but he didn’t improve the side, or its attacking output, at all. In a lot of ways he diminished its power: Cristiano Ronaldo, after 42 goals the previous season, scored 26 this time in a more disciplined role (whether it be in the centre or on either flank, he was more inclined to stay there, and less inclined to roam); Carlos Tevez scored just 5 goals in the league; and United just 68 in 38 games: The worst output for a United Champion outfit since 1993. If anything, instead of adding more attacking variation and guile, Berbatov helped to turn United into more of a passing machine, rather than the 4-6-0-interchanging-all-over-the-place fluid organism of the previous year. “1-0 to United” became as much of a popular scoreline as “1-0 to the Arsenal” had in the George Graham era. Fergie’s gamble hadn’t failed, but neither had it succeeded.
Yet that is only modern history, for now we must look to the future: Tevez has switched his red pyjamas for blue ones, CR7 has become CR9, and United are looking at an attacking overhaul that perhaps may not have occured if Berbatov hadn’t have moved to Old Trafford (certainly Tevez would not have left): Their wide areas post Ronaldo are almost scarily bare – Giggs doesn’t play there anymore; Fergie will be struck down with the plague if Rooney plays there again; Valencia is a Big Time Rookie (a shocker against Arsenal hasn’t helped); Nani is infuriatingly inconsistent and perhaps too young to shoulder too much responsibility (he may well have to in any case); Tosic and Obertan are surely Carling Cup merchants at best at the moment – i.e. United’s options out wide are not too far away from a shower. So why, in the first few games, has Ferguson persisted with two wingers? Does playing two wingers get the best out of Rooney, even if he is in His Holy And Righteous Place in the centre?
Surely now, after a numerically small but consequentially massive changing of the guard, it is time to let Berbatov show his worth, and repay the considerable faith shown in his abilities.
On Saturday, Berbatov didn’t start, with Valencia and Nani both playing to the sides of Rooney, and United were absolutely awful for large parts of the first 70 minutes. Valencia was poor, Nani was not much better, Rooney was chasing the lost causes he was meant to have stopped chasing, and United created almost nothing. Berbatov came on, with United very fortunately 2-1 up – they had created no clear chances other than the penalty (rather like the Burnley game) - and suddenly United had a spark, they became able to keep the ball, they became able to create chances. Pulling out to unorthodox areas – with just one winger space is not cramped on both flanks if either Berbatov or Rooney choose to roam wide – he glided out wide and created a simple chance for Nani, after missing one himself (absolutely hilariously) after a 50 yard run that left him looking absolutely knackered. While it is possible that United could have been running on the euphoria of the dramatic turnabout, there is no doubt that Berbatov gave United something that they didn’t have for the rest of the game. When he came on at Burnley, with United 1-0 down, the momentum started to build, and United seemed able to create chances on a regular basis. In his two starts, United have won 1-0 and 5-0, and created chance after chance. When he hasn’t started, they’ve looked like a wishy washy nonesense in attack.
Whilst there is no doubt that United have other pressing issues – The centre of midfield looks quite scarily open, with Darren Fletcher bearing a heavy load on his shoulders while Carrick, Anderson and Giggs look almost loathe at times to try and tackle. If Hargreaves doesn’t come back soon, United are simply going to have to fill the centre of midfield with three bodies (at least against the big teams) to compensate somewhat for the lack of bite in United’s engine room – there is surely no doubt for one thing – For United to create chances, Dimitar Berbatov must play.