In regards to United’s relative woes, Alex Ferguson would like everyone to throw up their hands and blame the extensive injuries to his back-line, just like he does.
But perhaps the most bemusing aspect of United’s current descent is the Scotsman’s bewildering usage of his most expensive player, striker Dimitar Berbatov.
Ferguson said in early December that he was “completely satisfied” with the former Bayer Leverkusen striker, and immediately continued to only play him sporadically.
The mysterious playmaker returned from a month-long injury absence in late November, and was featured as an unused substitute against bottom-dwellers Portsmouth.
He started United’s next match against Tottenham, essentially running the game in a comfortable victory. Instead of starting United’s next match at West Ham, Berbatov came off the bench in the 67th minute only after stasis was removed by long-range strikes from midfielders Paul Scholes and Darron Gibson.
United’s next match was a dour home loss to Aston Villa. Ferguson started a 4-5-1 formation, with a mentally and physically exhausted Rooney again expected to succeed up front, alone, as he rarely does. Ferguson pressed the panic button in the 62nd minute, sending Berbatov into the fray to unlock a Villa defense already well retreated within itself.
In their next match, it seemed like the Scotsman begrudgingly realized his best attacking six. Berbatov and Rooney were paired up top—a combination bloomed this year and last—with dynamic, balanced wing support from a rare Obertan start across from Valencia.
Though United, or any of the aforementioned attackers, didn’t play their best, they walked away three goals to the good.
In United’s next and latest game, Ferguson made one of his most egregious tactical mistakes in recent memory. Starting a nebulous 3-5-2 formation, the legendary manager put a fatigued Rooney up top with an unfit Owen, a like-for-like pairing, with no guile, incision, or aerial presence.
Once again, Ferguson teetered and desperately brought in Berbatov after 52 minutes, down two goals, and once again, it was too late for United, who were shutout 3-0.
Simply put, United are 11-1-1 this season in games Berbatov starts. With Scholes and Giggs on the wane, and Ronaldo in foreign shores, the graceful striker is United’s most creative player. Hell, he’s one of the most creative players in the world; largely why United paid such an exorbitant sum for him.
Granted, he’s not perfect. His laconic style is personal, but, there are often times he could hustle more into goal-scoring positions, instead of shrugging his shoulders, almost self-congratulatory, and maundering slowly forward after he’s sent in a splitting through-ball.
However, his ability to cast off defenders and retain possession is absolutely world-class. His vision and passing are outstanding; better than Rooney’s. He holds and shuttles the ball intelligently, seemingly with little effort. His close ball control, again, is unparalleled. His volleying technique—magnificent.
Unfortunately for Berba, his inimitable style beguiles onlookers just as it does defenders, making him one of the most opinion-dividing stars in the world football. But Berbatov is the truth. His play doesn't lie, it only confuses.
He can’t really seem to get a game, though, while his manager strangely tinkers with new formations. Omnipresent in these formations, though, is Rooney, who does far less to create and produce goals, even though his actual goal tally this term is markedly higher than the Bulgarian’s—mostly tap-ins with four penalty conversions.
Rooney doesn’t create goals exceptionally well, but he does finish goals, albeit not at the frequency of more predatory strikers. Berbatov is not a natural predator, but creates goals better than Rooney, other forwards and most attacking central midfielders in Europe.
Their combination to start the season was and remains Ferguson's best option, short of pairing Berbatov with Macheda and pushing Rooney into center midfield.
But now Rooney is tired, Berbatov can’t get a start, and United are playing their worst football this season.
Ferguson can’t blame all that on injuries, and nor should you.