By Isidore Lewis
£30 million and two-and-a-half seasons later, Dimitar Berbatov’s career at Manchester United is finally coming good. The Bulgarian scored another hat-trick on Saturday afternoon – his third of the season so far – putting him amongst an elite group of only three players to have scored a hat-trick of hat-tricks in one Premier League season. Considering the other two are Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Alan Shearer, two players who hold near-on legendary status in the history of the Premier League, it’s safe to say he is in good company.
Berbatov, however, still has a long way to go before he can be regarded in the same light. Despite having scored 17 goals in all competitions so far this season, the Bulgarian’s inconsistent scoring record for Manchester United has up until now been a source of criticism. Previous seasons at United have seen him score 14 and 12 goals respectively and, although his form of 14 goals in the past twenty games is impressive, many have pointed to the fact that he has failed to score in 15 of these games.
Furthermore, his ability to make a difference in big matches has been called into question, although his goal against Chelsea in the Community Shield and his hat-trick against Liverpool earlier this season suggest an improvement in this regard.
Berbatov has struggled to make a significant or lasting impact in Manchester since his move from Tottenham in 2008. At a cost of over £30 million, the forward joined the club on the back of an historic season in which United won both the league and the Champions League. It was a move widely regarded at the time to be the final piece of the jigsaw at Manchester United; the perfect foil to an already strong and populated strike-force made up of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. However, partly due to a poor public image that has come from a perceived ‘lazy’ playing style and partly due to other circumstances – notably his large transfer fee – Manchester United fans have never really warmed to him.
Despite the high price the club paid for him, Berbatov was very much the understudy in his first season at Old Trafford; a bonus player whose impact and overall importance to the team was largely overshadowed by the accomplishments of the aforementioned Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez.
Elegant and slight in frame, Berbatov was a different sort of player to them. Whilst undoubtedly talented, he lacked the sort of determined, driving approach on the field that made these players so popular and that supporters in England typically like to see.
Speculation surrounding his future grew in the summer of 2009. However, when Ronaldo and Tevez departed, an opportunity arose for Berbatov to become the key man at Old Trafford. Things, however, did not really go to plan.
Berbatov was once again overshadowed, this time by Rooney alone, whose deployment as a central striker saw him score 34 goals (and eventually go on to be voted PFA Players’ Player of the year). Berbatov’s role in Rooney’s success was significant although largely underappreciated: Where some championed him as the unsung hero that allowed Rooney the space and opportunity to score as many goals as he did, others saw a player struggling in a deeper, midfield role and he was largely made a scapegoat for the team’s failure to win the league that year.
Attitudes towards him were divided, as they still are now. At his best, Berbatov has the sort of elegance, skill, movement, vision, touch, confidence and all-round brilliance that is reminiscent of Eric Cantona. Yet, his lazy and lethargic playing style, perceived poor attitude and generally negative public image has done little to endear him to supporters.
Berbatov is rarely seen offering help to the side’s defence and he has, for example, in the past been unapologetic about the fact that he smokes, suggesting in an interview in 2009 that he sometimes likes to put an unlit cigarette in his mouth just to appear cool. It’s the sort of statement that, regardless of whether or not it is true, has done little to improve his image.
Yet, suggestions are that Berbatov is fitter this year. He retired from international football at the end of last season – having become Bulgaria’s all-time record goalscorer, no less – and reportedly ran six miles a day during his summer break in a bid to be fit for the season ahead:
‘I have worked hard on my fitness’, said Berbatov in Autumn. ‘So hard. I’m not a weights guy, I’m sure you can see by my body. But I have been trying even to work on that. I ran six miles every day during the off season. I watched one World Cup match, went for a run. Then watched another and went for another run. This was my routine’.
Mercurial and enigmatic in temperament and style, Berbatov is not and will never be the tenacious, driving force that Manchester United fans saw in players like Tevez, Ronaldo and Rooney. However, his talent is such that he may still go on to be a big player at Manchester United. If goals are a judgement of success, then Berbatov is well on the way to his most successful season yet at Old Trafford. Still only 29, Berbatov’s career at Manchester United might just be blossoming at the right time.