Last week in the build-up to the English Premier League’s most anticipated match of the season, there were many in the press and blogosphere that openly questioned Dimitar Berbatov’s ability to replace Wayne Rooney as an effective lone striker. I, myself, wrote an article arguing that Rooney’s ankle injury made the EPL Chelsea’s title to lose, the crux of which was based on Berbatov’s inability to fill the English star’s boots. Another brave soul wrote a brilliant article suggesting Sir Alex Ferguson need not simply insert Berbatov for Rooney, but rather employ a unique 4-2-4-0 with no true striker, of which, again, the focal point was that the lanky Bulgarian can be a liability rather than an asset in a single striker setup. Both articles met their fair share of criticism, but it is my opinion that we share the last laugh.
While I am sure there will remain many Berbatov-lovers who will defend him to the death, anyone who watched Chelsea’s 2-1 win over United can see that the £31 million man failed in his big chance to save United’s domestic campaign and prove his critics wrong. United now need Chelsea to slip up and no longer control their own destiny. No one can deny that the Red Devils gave an overall lethargic performance at Old Trafford on Saturday, and a lot of that starts at the top of the attack with Berbatov.
My argument against, and most critics’ arguments against, the man they call ‘Berba’ is his low work rate. And in a match where Rooney, who embodies and personifies relentless determination, is missing, the lone striker in Ferguson’s 4-5-1 setup HAS to work at a very high rate to get into whatever space a tight, organized Chelsea defense is going to allow.
I do not get to watch every Manchester United match, much less every United match which Berbatov starts, but what has always been glaringly clear and extremely frustrating is how little he runs across the back line. Rather, he often just walks or lightly jogs between the two center-backs as the attack is building either from the wings or through the middle. In the few instances where Berbatov decides to move, he attracts the attention of defenders because they know how brilliant he is on the ball. He is known to drop deep to start an attack, often doing so with great success, but in a lone striker formation this type of play can be counter-productive. Rather, it is Berbatov’s lack of horizontal movement that made easy pickings for top-class defenders John Terry and Alex all afternoon.
Please fast forward to 20:02 (or so) of this video which shows Alan Hansen’s analysis of why Berbatov often proves ineffective without another striker doing a lot of the running for him, sparing you anymore of my anti-Berbatov diatribe.
Hansen makes it abundantly clear that those little pockets that naturally open up between fullback and center-back were never exploited, nay, never even thought of by Berbatov. It just isn’t in his game. Obviously, Rooney is a special player who, quite literally, possesses every quality a footballer needs to be the best in the world. No one is expecting Berbatov to slide in and become Wayne Rooney, but his sluggish style may prove decisive in United’s quest for silverware sans Rooney.
I will never argue that Dimitar Berbatov is not worthy of praise for his incredible ball skills and precision passing for a big man, but his low work rate disqualifies him from the discussion of top EPL strikers, because this is a league defined by fast, frenetic tempo of play, and the Bulgarian’s lethargic, slower pace to the game (I believe) would suit him better in Serie A. In the end, he never truly tested Chelsea’s defense, and for his one true chance in the match, deep in stoppage time, he mishit and blew a potential equalizer. Overall, an average display from a player whose team were desperate for a man-of-the-match performance.
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