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Why Dimitar Berbatov Is a Football Artist

Manchester United v Blackburn Rovers League  27/11/2010 Dimitar Berbatov (Man Utd) celebrates first goal Photo: Roger Parker Fotosports International Photo via Newscom

There are some footballers who we can all agree about. Lionel Messi, for example. There can’t be any serious observer who would think he’s over-rated. But such unanimity is very rare in football.

Split opinion is much more common and when it comes to Dimitar Berbatov, rarely can a player have divided opinion with such a gulf.

There are two armed camps when it comes to the languid Bulgarian; those who think he’s a brilliant and mercurial talent, and there are those who think he’s lazy, uncommitted and far too inconsistent.

Which side you are on probably depends on how you like to see football played. If you’re a fan of run-all-day players whose contribution is measured by perspiration, Berbatov will annoy the hell out of you because that’s not his game at all. Then again, why should it be? You don’t employ an artist to be a coal miner do you?

Much of what Berbatov does goes unnoticed by those who just want to see a man running around like mad dog. His ability to find space for himself and others, while not a demonstrative art form, is nonetheless a form of brilliance. This year he’s added goals to his creative game, and that will always get you more fans but the majority opinion, including that of his manager it would seem, is that he is a luxury player and not one for the blood and snot battles in the trenches.

This might actually be true however, as a neutral who just loves to see a footballer with craft and guile, it doesn’t concern me. I’ve always loved Berbatov because he is a footballer like very few footballers. He has an air of insouciance and when at the peak of his form, an understanding and ability that is second to none. The way he can hit a pass or a shot with the outside of his foot is to watch a true artist at work.

The best footballers always seem to have time and space; as though the universe moves slower for them than for the mere mortals who surround hem, and Berbatov has always had that unhurried quality. Granted, he won’t be Mr Consistent for any side. He won’t give you a seven out ten performance week after week, but such predictability is for lesser talents.

In some ways he’s a throw back to the days when football was more about skill than athleticism. When it was a slower game full of men who had talent to burn, looking to beat the opposition with flair and style. The likes of Rodney Marsh, Stan Bowles, Eddie Gray and even George Best, often created similarly divided opinion. Like Berbatov they would blow hot and cold but then again, I’d argue it is to such rare talents that we turn for the genuine brilliance in football; the very inconsistency an expression of the precarious, the difficult nature of the game they instinctively want to play.

Berbatov is a football artist. His art may never appeal to the masses but perhaps that is always the case with real brilliance.

Editor’s Note: Johnny’s new book: “We Ate All The Pies: How Football Swallowed Britain Whole” is available via Amazon US or Amazon UK.

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    January 8, 2011 at 7:19 pm


  2. Lounad

    December 31, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    he’s almost great this season, the greatest is WAZZZZA Rooney my favourite among the greatest hope he will strike again as he did last season, manchester united lacks midfileder like iniesta or xavi and alonso if it has one of these so everythings will be on the rail and win everything and hope it will. MAN UTD GREATEST FOOTBAL CLUB EVER.

    • the greatest

      January 3, 2011 at 4:48 pm

      I believe the greatest you mean is ruud van nistelrooy, greatest number 10 weve ever had waynes not even close….

  3. Sam

    December 30, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    can we put this up for article of the year right now, simply sublime just like berba.
    Now I am a spurs fan till the day I die and I have missed him dearly until this season, we lacked that flair, creativity, his vision off the ball. Weve finally replaced him in sorts with rafa, but I still watch Man U just for him and what he can do any time he touches that ball.

  4. ish

    December 29, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    first touch is sublime. reminds me of a ballerina in his control considering he is a pretty tall guy. amazing player. can struggle in some games when service is poor but thats every striker.

  5. Smokey Bacon

    December 29, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    Berbatov is a joy to watch right now. The flick on for Gibson and the way he despatched the return the other night was sublime skill and clinical finishing all in the space of 10 seconds. More than a touch of Cantona and Bergkamp about the way he plays. Seems to be making this Man Utd team his team, at least while Rooney does his penance with the fans. Some players are not made to run around tackling and chasing back. People should just enjoy Berbatov why we have the chance. The premier league would be dull as sh*te without him.

    • Guy

      December 29, 2010 at 9:10 pm

      U B smokin’…… 😉

  6. Nave

    December 29, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    Berbatov just needed a strike partner the whole time. Which he found in Rooney. I still don’t rate him that highly. He was terrible the past couple of seasons. One season doesn’t make a player world class. Remember Stephen Ireland’s great season? Look where he is now. Only time will tell. Maybe he will prove me wrong.

    • King Eric

      December 29, 2010 at 6:54 pm

      You didn’t notice him when he was w/Spurs then did you?

    • mike

      December 30, 2010 at 5:43 pm

      You missed an “i” in the middle of your nickname – it should have been “Naive” instead of “Nave”. I’m sure this was just a typo and what you meant to show us was how naive you are…:-)

  7. dlink09

    December 29, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    he is a good player.. he will never be a star in England

  8. Liam

    December 29, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    Ah yes the great Berbatov, like all the greats before him, still consistantly left out of the crucial matches against title rivals.

    • The Gaffer

      December 29, 2010 at 1:39 pm

      Liam, Manchester United hasn’t played Chelsea yet this season 😉

      The Gaffer

      • Liam

        December 29, 2010 at 1:46 pm

        Ahh fair do’s. Think he will start when they do?

        • The Gaffer

          December 29, 2010 at 1:53 pm

          With Fergie shuffling his squad, who knows. But I’m sure he’ll be part of one of the two matches at least.

          The Gaffer

  9. Guy

    December 29, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    It is nice to see Berba getting some love especially after all the crap he has taken in the recent past. I have always admired the way he flows across the pitch and have never mistaken that for laziness or lack of interest. I think the guy just sees the field differently than most and reacts accordingly. Berba’s stoicism may be disconcerting to some, but it is not a fault. I would not expect Cezanne to explain his brush strokes to me nor would I understand them if he did. (excuse the mixed metaphor)

    I would not go so far as to compare Berba directly to Berkamp, but I think he is one of very few players capable of replicating Berkamp’s astounding goal against Newcastle—my all time favorite. That was indeed a brush stroke not available to mere mortals. Berba has that in him and it is lovely to see when he has a chance to bring it out. Let’s hope there’s lots more this season.

    • Guy

      December 29, 2010 at 8:11 pm


      It would be nice if I could spell the name of someone I so admire correctly….Bergkamp…Bergkamp. 🙁

  10. King Eric

    December 29, 2010 at 11:35 am

    Well put, I’m glad this was brought up. Those who don’t appreciate his talent and what he brings to the game don’t understand football in my opinion. He’s more a of a playmaking forward than an out and out poaching striker always finding the back of the net. His style reminds me of Dennis Bergkamp in a way. ‘Dennis the Menace’ however, was far more consistent over a longer period of time for both club and country, but Berba seems to have those same attributes and skill that separates him from most.

    I’ve come to notice over time though how Berba’s seemingly greatest challenge is his mental strength; he seems to really get down on himself and become frustrated when things don’t go as planned- signs of a perfectionist. Either way, I love and appreciate his game just the same.

    • SirKev

      December 29, 2010 at 1:43 pm

      Excellent point regarding his mental strength. I’ve been supportive of him and recognized his talent and contribution when he was getting the assists and not the goals the previous two years. But what has held him back is his lack of success in big games. When he has had the opportunity to play against Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool (I guess I still need to include them), in Europe it has been his lack of production that has led to fans killing him. I was really disappointed when the Chelsea match got cancelled because I want to see this confident Berba against the Blues and see if he will finally put up a worthy performance. Then again, I’m not sure Sir Alex would have started him. But in this season he has clearly been the Team MVP.

  11. tonyspeed

    December 29, 2010 at 11:03 am

    i think messi is over-rated.

    • The Gaffer

      December 29, 2010 at 11:13 am

      I think Messi is over-rated only when it’s a big match in the later rounds of the Champions League where he gets marked out of the game and disappears (against Inter Milan, Chelsea and Liverpool, as examples). Other than that, he’s a genius.

      The Gaffer

      • tonyspeed

        December 29, 2010 at 11:28 am

        don’t forget world cup. but yes, exactly..

        • Thomas

          December 30, 2010 at 3:42 am

          If you watched Argentina play, especially in the group stages, Messi was unfortunate not to score.

          In the first 15 minutes of the Nigeria game, he created about 5 quality scoring chances for himself and his teammates..

  12. brn442

    December 29, 2010 at 10:41 am

    “There are two armed camps when it comes to the languid Bulgarian; those who think he’s a brilliant and mercurial talent, and there are those who think he’s lazy, uncommitted and far too inconsistent.”

    I will go out on a limb and speak for most that there is no such dichotomy. That sums up what virtually, EVERYONE thinks of him.

  13. pacificStyle

    December 29, 2010 at 9:53 am

    “Insouciant” – Daim dawg… why you gotta make a brotha lookup the dictionary online?! 🙂 I kid, I kid (although I did look it up)…!

    Nice article Mr. Nicholson. Enjoyed reading it. Yeah Berba’s good, man! Makes Footy look good… everything you said. He ain’t “The Continental” for nothing – he done Brooks Peck over at Dirty Tackle proud!

  14. timbo

    December 29, 2010 at 9:21 am

    I have spent 2 – 3 years defending the guy on various forums, especially when it comes to the double standard applied to the likes of Wayne Rooney, arguably the most over-rated footballer of recent generations. You think Berbatov would have been spared the knives had he gone on a nine month scoreless streak, or that people would have glossed over a missed penalty in the manner that Rooney was spared for his ridiculous and totally uncontrolled blast over goal recently? Week in and week out, Rooney is given excuses or found to have made ‘significant contributions’ despite his ongoing goal drought and lackluster play. Even when playing well, Rooney is renowned for his hot and cold streaks regarding goal scoring (for England as well as United) but it’s always papered over with ‘Oh, Wayne’s such a world class talent, the goals will eventually come’. Funny how no one rips Roo the shreds for such inconsistency but still uses the word with unfailing regularity to describe Berbatov, even in a backhanded manner when discussing his fabulous five goal performance recently.

    A final point regarding the article. The author missed a fairly obvious point when describing the manner in which time seems to march to a different drum where players like Berbatov are concerned. That is very true, and a point I have made repeatedly about the Bulgarian. What is also true is that such a gift bestows an unwanted perception about such talents, that the game comes so easy to them that they don’t even look as if they’re trying – hence the ‘languid’ description regarding Berbatov. It’s a false perception in many ways, because if you look at the stats Berbatov covers more than his fair share of ground during a game, and what’s more applies his energy far more intelligently than most other players. One of his least appreciated gifts is also one of the things he’s often criticized for, which is his defense. He might not run all over the pitch like a headless chicken, a la Wayne Rooney, but there is no one better at United then Berbatov when it comes to holding on to the ball against multiple defenders with what at times seems ridiculous ease and unappreciated strength. He thus maintains possession well (unlike Rooney who is one of the great wastrels at United) pulls defenders away, opens up the field of play, and usually finishes off the situation by passing the ball intelligently to an open team mate. That whole package seem too subtle for the many pundits and fans who constantly criticize the Bulgarian for his supposed lack of a work ethic.

    And finally, if you want to see the vast gulf that exists in talent between Berbatov and Rooney, look at Berbatov’s goal from the game against Birmingham, which was scored with such effortless grace. As is typical of the man, he latched on to a pass from a team mate, and with little time to make a decision casually set up the shot and slotted the ball into the narrow gap open to him between the goalie and the post, making the whole thing look effortless. As with virtually all of Berbatov’s shots, one always gets the sense that he knows exactly where the ball is going when it leaves his boot – even when he misses you get the sense that he was trying to be too cute and pushing his gifts to the limits, rather than the shot being totally aimless. Watching Rooney by comparison is to wonder if his scattergun approach will net a goal or not because he seems to have as little idea as anyone else where the ball will go when he blasts away at the net – unlike Berbatov, Rooney always seems to lack poise and time when taking his shots, which results in his frustrating habit of blasting the ball in all directions rather than at the goal, even to the extent that his signature shot of late has become the stratospheric canon well over the goal – it’s even crept into his penalty shots! Oddly though, the fact Rooney bustles so much over his shots feeds into the perception amongst his fans that he’s always trying, that he’s a hustler always working away for his team – never mind all the errant passes, blown goals, or lost possession resulting from his lack of vision and time on the ball. One of these days maybe people will realize that busting your arse running all over the pitch does not denote class. Most of us, if fit, could do that. What very few of us could accomplish though is to replicate the sublime talents of a genius like Berbatov. It’s a shame he so unappreciated at United, because players like the Bulgarian rarely come along in football. For vision, touch, and situational awareness, he remind me a great deal of Cruyff, which is saying something. One always had the sense that the great Dutchman knew at any given moment where every single team mate – and opponent – was on the pitch and that every pass or move was orchestrated on the basis of that knowledge. No one ever brought others into a game as well as he did. Berbatov’s very similar, though in a different position – look what he did for Keane at Tottenham. Rooney doesn’t seem to have the nouse to tune in, but others in the side seem to be getting the idea of what Berbatov has to offer. I can only hope that the rest of the fan base wakes up to it as well one day.

    • tonyspeed

      December 30, 2010 at 12:27 pm

      I think praising Berbatov at the expense of Rooney is a bit like cursing your tyres because you like your steering wheel… It’s is very myopic to say the least. Berbatov should not be running around the pitch everywhere. He is a tall, forward striker. Rooney, despite what many think, is not very effective as a striker. His positioning is not there. But what Rooney does have (NOT stamina!) is passing ability. Rooney’s cross field passes have gotten better an better over the years. His ability to pass the ball long distances accurately is what is his best skill at this particular moment.

  15. bob marley

    December 29, 2010 at 8:05 am

    Halleluijah to that. Not since the days of Bergkamp a.k.a God have I had the privilege of watching someone so good on the ball. He makes football look good.

  16. Tule jude

    December 29, 2010 at 8:03 am

    Berbatov is a genius.Not all players run around chasing,he’s a real Eric Cantona type.

  17. Clampdown

    December 29, 2010 at 7:59 am

    But he can’t be any good. He doesn’t run around like a headless chicken and then scream at the ref that he’s a c*nt.

    The guy is brilliant, but I think he’d be better appreciated in Spain or Italy.

  18. farlieonfootie

    December 29, 2010 at 7:50 am

    I love Berba; always have, always will. To me he’s a footballing genius, with better vision and skills than anyone else currently playing (save possibly a certain small Argentine). I write about him regularly on my website, and have noted before (and will do so again) that whether you love him or hate him, there is one thing the two divided camps ALWAYS agree on: when you describe Berba, it is impossible to do so without the use of the word “languid.” Come hell or high water, love him or hate him, Berba’s articles all contain that description — check it out (even above)!


      January 8, 2011 at 6:44 pm

      @falie what’s the name of your website?

      • farlieonfootie

        January 8, 2011 at 7:01 pm

        If you click on my name to the left, it’s set up here (kindly so, by the Gaffer) to take you to my website….. Thanks!

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