The Classy Bulgarian

Written by  //  September 20, 2010  //  Sport  //  2 Comments

Dimitar Berbatov lit up Old Trafford with a glorious hat-trick that gave Manchester United a 3-2 victory against Liverpool on Sunday. The first and the third goal were both headers executed albeit, in uniquely dissimilar fashion. While the former was a nonchalant flick off Ryan Giggs’s corner, the latter was a regal finish that saw the Bulgarian out-jumping Jamie Carragher to meet John O’Shea’s right wing cross before planting the ball with a twist of his neck into the bottom right corner. As brilliant a header as his winning goal was, though, it was emphatically overshadowed by his second goal – a sight that was meant for the gods. After plucking Nani’s cross from the right flank, out of the air with his thigh, back to goal he unleashed an overhead kick that was as majestic in its beauty as ingenious in its conception.

Berbatov has had his fair share of doubters, with his languid style often mistaken for a lack of interest. But not least because of the 30 million pounds expended on him, Sir Alex Ferguson has resolutely retained faith in the striker. In the build up to the Liverpool fixture, Ferguson described Berbatov, in his program notes, as possessing ‘a touch of genius’ – a statement that was comprehensively vindicated by his splendid showing. With Wayne Rooney beset by problems aplenty in his personal life, United have needed Berbatov to step up to the plate. And step up he has, with his seven goals in six appearances this season already greater than half of the tally he managed in the whole of the last campaign.

Statistics however, fail to do justice to his talents. His ability to link-up play and the frequent displays of his extraordinary vision are a joy to behold. Even against Liverpool, apart from his goals, the manner of his affiliation with Wayne Rooney made for pleasurable viewing. A dummy that perplexed Carragher and released Rooney down the centre was particularly noteworthy for its ingenuity. His versatility however, remains to be proved beyond question. While his style seems perfectly complimentary to a 4-4-2, he is yet to demonstrate his abilities as the lone centre-forward in a 4-5-1 or a 4-3-3.

While on the subject of tactics, it is also fascinating to note that although the 4-4-2 is considered to have passed its sell-by date as an attacking formation, Ferguson continues to place faith in the system. The recently concluded World Cup Finals, as Jonathan Wilson points out in his outstanding column in the Guardian, has served as a death knell for the system. The shape fashioned by Viktor Maslov with Dynamo Kiev in the mid 1960s had come to represent the archetypical formation of modern-day football.

For years in the Barclays Premier League, teams rarely seemed to deploy anything but the 4-4-2 – viewed as the formation that distributes personnel across the pitch in the most proportional manner. Arsene Wenger is reported to have said: “I think the 4-4-2 is simply the most rational formation in most cases. With it, 60% of your players are occupying 60% of the pitch. No other formation is as efficient in covering space.” It was after all the preferred formation of Ariggo Sacchi, one of contemporary football’s most shrewd tacticians.

Yet in recent times, at least amongst the teams occupying the top echelons in the Premier League, the 4-4-2 has come to be replaced either by the 4-3-3 or the 4-5-1, depending upon the specific needs of the team or the personnel at its disposal. Roy Hodgson whose excellent run with Fulham was predicated upon a system involving a 4-4-2 has also joined the herd by lining Liverpool up in a conservative 4-5-1. Although some may argue that this is a product of the squad at Liverpool’s disposal with Fernando Torres – the only renowned forward available – the impact on the Manchester United-Liverpool fixture this past weekend that David Ngog’s introduction had dispels such a notion. Ngog may have his limitations as a footballer, but his very presence seemed to provide Liverpool with greater attacking options that resulted in two goals that may not have been created if not for the space made available to Torres by the Frenchman’s running. Although Manchester United, who themselves were arranged in a 4-4-2 with Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney plying up front, emerged victorious, Liverpool’s rearrangement in the second half with the substitution of Ngog for Maxi Rodriguez showcased some of the attributes that the 4-4-2 continues to offer.

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