The Curious Case of Dimitar Berbatov

Chris DowdingCorrespondent IMarch 24, 2009

MANCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 27:  Dimitar Berbatov of Manchester United shows his frustration during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford on September 27, 2008 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

When Manchester United (by fair means or foul) signed Dimitar Berbatov from Tottenham Hotspur minutes before the transfer window slammed shut in September of last year, the excitement among their supporters was almost at fever pitch.

Here were the English and European Champions, signing one of the finest centre forwards in the Premier League to compliment the already formidable firepower at their disposal.

Berbatov, a player of grace and poise, who had scored goals for Spurs of such a high quality, would only improve the Old Trafford outfit, surely.

Fast forward six months, and the reality is far different from the heady ideals of September.

So far, United supporters have seen precious little of the abundant flair that made Berbatov such a threat at White Hart Lane. Allied to that, would be the apparent lack of effort and heart shown by the Bulgarian.

Eight goals in 28 games does not represent a good return from a player who cost his employers over £30 million.

But it is not that which has disappointed Manchester United supporters. It is his almost unwillingness to get involved, to fight for the team, to look even remotely interested in what is happening around him.

There can be no doubting his talent, and he has turned it on in the United colours; a piece of skill against West Ham to set up a goal for Wayne Rooney almost defied belief, but he has not produced enough.

Some would rightly point to, for example, the FA Cup game away at Southampton, where Berbatov was almost untouchable and unplayable. With all due respect to Southampton and the club's supporters, if Berbatov cannot play well against them, there is no hope for him.

If you think back over the last few years, United's attacking play has often left defenders dizzy.

The likes of Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs, and (when fit) Louis Saha would swap positions with almost telepathic regularity, dragging opponents around the pitch, leaving space for others and providing plenty of options for the man on the ball.

They would generally line up with one or two "centre forwards" but in reality, each of them could play there, while the others dropped deep or went wide.

Throw Berbatov into the mix and this no longer happens. In much the same way as when Ruud van Nistelrooy was at Old Trafford, United have a spearhead for the attack, a fixed point that they can focus on and aim for.

Van Nistelrooy was, as is well documented a "box-player", but his goal return was quite incredible. If Berbatov had produced such a return, there would be no qualms about him, but the fact of the matter is, he hasn't.

One thing that football supporters will always appreciate, no matter the limited skill of a player, is effort. Diego Forlan had a hard time at Old Trafford in terms of goalscoring (something he has remedied quite spectacularly since his move to Spain), but his work rate was unbelievable, endearing him to the supporters.

Ji-Sung Park isn't the most talented of players in the Manchester United squad, lacking the nous and guile of a Ryan Giggs, but his willingness to chase lost causes and run until the very last whistle has made him a cult figure. They don't call him "Three Lungs" for nothing.

While the likes of Park, Rooney and Tevez chase down defenders looking to force them into a mistake and chase every ball and put everything they have into getting a result for the team, Berbatov seems disinterested. He often looks as though he may be strolling around with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth.

Rather than not yet justifying his vast transfer fee and wages, it is this that will turn supporters against him.

Yet all is not lost for Berbatov.

His style of play is certainly different to any other player at Sir Alex Ferguson's disposal, and a player with his talent will surely produce on some level soon enough.

The difference between the way United play compared to his previous clubs (the Bulgarian played for German side Bayer Leverkusen prior to coming to England) is noticeable, and this must take some adjusting to.

His second season will be telling. If he doesn't adapt—and make no mistake, he needs to adapt to the team and their style of play, not the other way round—then it could be said that his signing is a big money flop in the Juan Sebastien Veron mould.

On the other hand, if he finally finds his rhythm within the team and produces performances that justify not only his transfer fee but continued presence in the starting line up, then Manchester United will once again be the attacking force they have been over the last three years.

But more than anything, if Berbatov can find it within himself to give more to the team, to offer himself for more passes, to make runs that leave space for others, to chase the lost causes then he will have the whole of Old Trafford behind him.

If anything will persuade him that he is in a fight worth fighting, it will be that.