Ferguson's indifference toward Berbatov could usher Spurs return
"I read the papers and I see they say £10 million is my price. I go and talk with Sir Alex, and he says to me £5 million. So who is telling the truth, what do you think?" asked Dimitar Berbatov of his million-plus Facebook fans earlier this week. "The truth is, I love this club, but I am not going to be useful to anyone if I am not playing." It is the latest in a string of posts on his timeline wondering what the future holds.
The posts are usually accompanied by an arm's length picture of the Manchester United striker looking as cool as ever, but it is still a long way from the catwalk insouciance of that first stroll through Old Trafford four years ago, a time that saw photographers scrambling over one another outside and fists threshing out in impotent rage 200 miles away at Tottenham Hotspur.
Berbatov's £30.75 million move remains the record for both clubs in terms of transfers for fees paid/received, but much else has changed since that day in September 2008. At White Hart Lane, Berbatov had two of the finest seasons of his career; in 102 appearances he scored 46 goals, ranging from the simple tap-in against Sheffield United in 2006 with which he opened his tenure to his delicately hooked hat-trick volley against Reading the following season.
He left reviled for the manner of his departure, which Juande Ramos blamed on Tottenham's poor start to the 2008-09 season. But he also left a hero as one of the club's most celebrated players in recent times. His relationship with the crowd on match days was often a sweet one; for someone so modishly aloof off the pitch, he tended to wear his heart on his sleeve while on it. He seemed to enjoy his partnership with Robbie Keane as much as those watching, and feel as frustrated when it did not work out.
United delighted in his signature and the drama of his arrival, ensuring that he and manager Alex Ferguson, shook hands in front of a full-length window at Old Trafford. "Dimitar is one of the best and most exciting strikers in world football," Ferguson said with a grin at the time.
Things are different now. Now, Ferguson shrugs his shoulders and says, "I am easy about it if he stays ... but if someone comes in and Dimitar wants to leave, we will assess it."
United's handling of Berbatov over the last season or so has been similarly careless, even cruel. Despite notching 20 goals by the end of January, Berbatov spent increasing amounts of time on the bench as 2010-11 wore on. In the 2011 Champions League final, Berbatov was not even included in a squad that contained Michael Owen. Truth be told, as early as Berbatov's first season at Old Trafford, there was a sense that Ferguson had acquired Berbatov without really having a plan.
The apparent lack of fit between the player and the system echoed Juan Sebastian Veron's arrival. United's strikers over the last 15 years, with the exception of Teddy Sheringham, have been relentlessly mobile: Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, Louis Saha, Carlos Tevez, even Ruud van Nistelrooy, before an Achilles injury in 2004 rounded his edges. At £30 million, the slower and more deliberate Berbatov was a mischievous and fanciful purchase. Even in that first season, the Bulgarian watched most of the United's biggest games from the sidelines, and was subbed with 20 minutes of the Champions League semis and final to play.
For Ferguson to finger Berbatov's age (31) as a reason for the striker's unhappiness at finding himself behind not only Wayne Rooney but also Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez is disingenuous at best.
He has never scored so many goals in one season for United as he did for Spurs, but Berbatov's skills have not diminished. His touch on the ball -- audaciously minimalist yet full of flair -- did not go to rust even in a season with only 21 appearances (20, if we discount the single minute of last summer's Community Shield, and only six of those in 2012). Despite the indifferent treatment, his conduct has never deviated from absolutely professional. Berbatov is too good to have his talent so badly wasted that he is reduced to posting pleas on Facebook.
United has had an initial offer for Arsenal striker Robin van Persie rejected, but the attempt (timed to try and beat Manchester City, which must sell to release funds to buy, to the punch) signals that Berbatov cannot hope for much meaningful game time next season, though he has said he will stay and fight for his place if he remains. He has been linked with Galatasaray, Bayer Leverkusen and Milan, where he would replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic (and among Berbatov's back-catalogue you'll find more than one or two very Zlatan-esque goals; compare the volley against West Ham at the start of the 2010-11 season to Ibrahimovic's against France this summer).
At £5 million, though, he also has been linked with a bargain move back to Spurs. Besides the economics, Tottenham currently has only one striker on its books: Jermain Defoe, who played with Berbatov the first time around (though never so effectively as Keane, who is now playing with the L.A. Galaxy). It's not the first time that Berbatov has had a potential return to north London to consider; the same link was made last summer.
Chief among his concerns this time will be how much he can expect to be featured if Andre Villas-Boas designs a fast, pressing team in a 4-3-3 formation. The only reason that Berbatov's age might worry him is that he may not find many managers interested in building a team around him as Martin Jol and then Ramos did.
The move to Manchester United has been fruitful for Berbatov with two league titles and a league, but it is tempting to wonder what might have been had he remained at Tottenham in the first place.