He waits. That’s what he does
August 13, 2010 § 4 Comments
Last season, Manchester United scored 116 goals across all competitions, 59 of which were scored by forwards. This breaks down as follows: Rooney 34; Berbatov 12; Owen 9; Welbeck 2; Macheda 1; Diouf 1. And as the season progressed, Rooney was lauded for his new-found mastery of the lone-striker role, while there were mutterings about Berbatov’s performance. 12 goals, went the mutters, is not a particularly notable return for a £30m striker. This, allied to his long-standing violation of the First Principle of English Football – thou shalt always run anywhere as fast as possible and kick whatever you find there – meant that he was Berbaflop. Veron 2.0. Ineffective. A failure.
But of United’s goals, 47 (or 41%) came while Rooney was playing alongside Berbatov, while 28 (24%) came when Rooney was up front alone. And Rooney scored just thirteen of his goals while playing as a lone striker, the rest of his 34 coming alongside another forward, generally Berbatov. This in the team that finished one point from the top of the league despite a defensive injury crisis of comical proportions. It doesn’t exactly smack of ineffective. Indeed, it smacks of two strikers improving one another’s game, which is the point of a strike partnership (and, on a larger scale, the point of a football team: to function in such a way as to magnify the talents within in it).
Perhaps the most enduring notion of the Berbaflop thesis is that Sir Alex doesn’t trust Berbatov for the big games, preferring to play Rooney as a lone front-man. Which was certainly true last season: in most late-stage European games, Rooney tended to start on his own, even when, as in the Bayern second-leg, he was palpably unfit. But the idea that this was down to a lack of trust in Berbatov has always seemed slightly counter-intuitive, somehow suggesting that Sir Alex had made up his mind to play as many forwards as he could trust, could only find one, and stuck the others on the bench.
For a long time now, Sir Alex has approached the bigger games, particularly in Europe, with an extra man in midfield, the better to maintain possession. (The legend goes that this was inspired by United’s 3-1 shoeing at the hands of Real Madrid.) But last season was notable in that United had two definite and distinct systems, a fluid 4-4-2 and a more defensive 4-5-1, with the choice being predicated on the quality of the opposition and the nature of the match. The trustworthiness of the strikers is, essentially, irrelevant; with only one striking spot to fill, Rooney’s the obvious choice.
Berbatov’s role in the squad is to play alongside another striker when United need two; like any player, his worth is not measured in the goals he scores, but in the results the team achieves when he plays. And in doing so he follows in the footsteps of a number of illustrious second strikers who have graced the Premier League despite not scoring prolifically: if goals-per-game’s your thing, then Cantona scored a goal every 2.23 games, Bergkamp every 3.63, and Zola one every 3.88. Berbatov scores once every 2.79. The fact that you wouldn’t necessarily choose to play any of those three legends of the Premier League era up front on their own in a Champions League semi-final doesn’t diminish their qualities, and nor should it be allowed to diminish Berbatov’s. And the fact that Darren Bent scores a goal every 1.9 games doesn’t make him a better player than any of them.
This is not to put Berbatov in the same bracket as Cantona; he’s unlikely to have the same seismic effect on the club as the great man. But it’s illustrative of how goals are chronically overvalued in the assessment of footballers in general and strikers in particular. A goal is a symptom of a side playing well, and to a certain extent it is irrelevant where it comes from. Some players are better at kicking the ball between the posts than others, this is true, and so they will tend to do so more. Some players aren’t very good at much else, and so when they’re failing to do so, it’s a problem. But if a player makes a team better, then he is a good player, and the right player, even if he isn’t quite racking up the obvious numbers.
Besides, you can always find room in the team for someone who can do this.