After another sensational performance on Saturday – and a sublime finish that so nearly secured all three points for the Whites – this isn’t the piece I was expecting to write this morning. However, Sachin Nakrani’s contribution to yesterday’s Guardian’s ‘ten talking points’ piece reflecting on the weekend’s Premier League games was to suggest that Dimitar Berbatov is some sort of languid layabout, who really should be putting in a bit more effort.
Now, Nakrani’s usually engaging and worth reading so perhaps he’s controversial. Even if he’s overlooked the real lesson from Saturday’s mad finish at Reading – that Fulham need to quickly bolt the back door so as not to squander their attacking promise – his strongly-worded, and in my view misguided, caricature of Berbatov as someone who thinks he’s above all the hard graft makes for good copy. The problem is that it is full of suppositions that can’t be proved as well as inaccuracies:
We have all played with someone like Dimitar Berbatov, the guy who knows he is gifted, far more talented than those around him, and, as such, almost sees it as an insult that he should be expected to do basic things like run around and close down the opposition. Leave that, he believes, to the carthorses. The Bulgarian was at it again on Saturday, quite literally walking around the pitch while his team-mates looked to assert themselves against Reading. But ultimately it was he who shone brightest, delivering a performance of sublime control, movement and finishing to leave those watching wondering what he could achieve if he bothered a little bit more.
With respect to Fulham, Berbatov should be at a top-level team, indeed he was until Sir Alex Ferguson ran out of patience and decided that despite his impressive scoring record, he did not fit in at Manchester United. Fulham swooped at the end of the last transfer window and signed Berbatov for a bargain £4m. It is telling that no bigger clubs targeted Berbatov, and that can only be down to his lack of energy and effort on the pitch. If he could add that to his obvious talents there is no doubt that he could still become a key player at a team with ambitions of winning the Champions League. It is as if Berbatov needs to convince himself that he is not as good as he actually is.
Where do you start with this? Perhaps the best place to begin is with something that a few people might not have noticed unless they were at the game on Saturday. Like most of his early appearances for Fulham, Berbatov started against Reading in a deeper role that the one he fulfilled with some distinction for Manchester United. Jol has been trying him in the hole behind a lone striker lately, offering the Bulgarian a free role from which to come and influence the play. The fact that it didn’t work on Saturday was, I contend, more down to Hugo Rodallega’s ineffectiveness as the lone front man than any lack of effort on Berbatov’s part.
The idea that to be a top player who have to charge around the field like a man possessed is something that really should be consigned to the dark days of English football alongside the long ball and memories of Carlton Palmer in an England shirt. The concept still persists and it is one of the reasons why Bryan Ruiz has had a tough time since arriving in England from some Fulham ‘fans’. Getting ‘stuck in’ is all well and good, but it is no substitute for technical excellence, and if a player as good as Berbatov is out of puff after an hour because he’s spent all his energy chasing down the goalkeeper as he prepares to clear a back pass, Martin Jol would be justified in feeling aggrived that his star striker wasn’t on the pitch to influence proceedings in the closing stages.
Nakrani also omitted from his piece – or hadn’t observed – that Berbatov was quite seriously injured by a robust challenge in the first half. A suspected broken rib might have been the reason for his limited mobility that the journalist’s keen to lambast. Here’s Jol from the post-match press conference:
He needed an injection to play the second half and showed a lot of character. There was a problem with his rib which was very painful. Maybe it was broken, we’ll have to take a look at it. We asked him to play on for 10 or 15 minutes but he stayed on the pitch and it was good to see him score the third goal.
Even while he was clutching his back regularly before the break, Berbatov was still the man orchestrating most of Fulham’s attacks and, just as he did prior to the kick-off against Aston Villa last week, he could be seen in animated conversation with both of his central midfielders before the start of this game, going over the tactical plans one last time. Hardly the actions of a disinterested professional.
After his well-meaning ‘no disrespect to Fulham,’ Nakrani also asserts ‘it is telling that no bigger clubs targeted Berbatov’. Did he miss the frenzied final few hours of the transfer window? Both Juventus, who currently sit top of Serie A and certainly have ambitions of regaining their place amongst Europe’s elite by having a serious dart at the Champions’ League, and Fiorentina were seriously in the running for the player’s signature and were disappointed with the Bulgarian – to put in midly. The-then interim Juve coach attacked Berbatov as ‘unreliable’ after he opted to sign for Fulham and Fiorentina issued a furious statement, angrily denouncing the man who ‘did not deserve’ to wear their shirt and demanding that he pay for flights that had been booked in his name.
Perhaps Nakrani doesn’t consider the two Italian sides bigger clubs than Fulham, which would be some testimony to the club’s rise in recent seasons. Anyone who doubted Berbatov’s desire should have seen him spin away to cavort in front of the delirious travelling supporters like he’d just scored the winner in the World Cup final. Berbatov’s been the subject of snipes from the sidelines for all of his career – but the timing of this attack on his attitude was befuddlingly bizarre coming only hours after his starring role on Saturday.