Amid the growing popularity of statistical analysis in football, there are still, and will likely always be, certain aspects of the game that cannot be quantified, traits players possess that defy numeration.
It is in these intangibles that Dimitar Berbatov stood out, shaping the world around him to his whims, painting with visible, almost arrogant brush strokes like a master footballing Impressionist.
He was not fast, not hyper-productive and certainly no stat-padder. But Berbatov thought like no one else, saw things others couldn’t and moved in an unmistakeable, languid, insouciant way that was smugly dismissive of the mere-mortal defenders who stood in his way, wryly amused at their efforts to thwart his artistry.
In a 2017 interview with ESPN, Berbatov defined his style perfectly, in a manner only he could. “I am a striker and people expect strikers to score goals,” he told journalist Andy Mitten. “But I don’t see myself as a striker. I like to play with the ball and have the freedom to move around. If every player is on the left and I am on the right, you need to trust me that I have seen something the other players have not seen.”
A Champions League finalist in 2002 with 91 goals in six seasons in the Bayer Leverkusen first team, Berbatov came to England with considerable renown when he joined Tottenham Hotspur for £10.9million in the summer of 2006.
There were, however, doubts over his readiness for the intense physicality of the Premier League, with many observers feeling his ultra-laid-back approach wouldn’t jive with the demands of the fast-paced division. Such concerns were quickly put to bed. In his first season with Spurs, Berbatov shone; he didn’t need the extra yard of pace as he already had the proverbial one in his head.
Striking up a formidable partnership with Irish striker Robbie Keane, the Bulgarian returned an impressive 23 goals in in 49 games. The unlikely duo of the infectiously energetic former Wolverhampton Wanderers and Inter Milan forward and the new arrival from the Bundesliga, all vision and inspired technique, proved a frightening link-up.
A club famous for its flair players down the years, possessing a undying appreciation of maverick creators, the Spurs fans quickly took Berbatov into their hearts. Although this was something the player wasn’t initially comfortable with, owing to his shy nature.
“Spurs fans liked me. When I heard them singing my name I thought: ‘What the f***? Why are they singing for me?’ I didn’t like that attention,” he recalled in the same ESPN interview.
“Some players do, but I was embarrassed and thinking: ‘Please, please shut up.’ I don’t know why I felt like that but, when my family wanted to come and watch me play, I always asked that they didn’t come to the stadium. Sometimes I had to be tough and say: ‘No, you’re not coming.’ Even my father. He knows I prefer him to watch me on television, without the pressure of having to perform if they come to the stadium.”
Voted Tottenham‘s Player of the Year and named in the Premier League Team of the Year at the end of his first campaign at White Heart Lane, Berbatov carried his stellar form into his sophomore season in North London, again netting 23 times and helping Spurs lift the League Cup, scoring a penalty in a 2-1 extra-time win over Chelsea.
Such form inevitably led to admiring glances from elsewhere. Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson uncharacteristically declared his interest in Berbatov publicly as the 2007/08 season wound down, but it was rivals Manchester City who moved first, lodging a bit for the former CSKA Sofia man’s services. Ferguson had to act quickly.
“When we got wind of that fact that [Spurs chairman Daniel] Levy was trying to sell Berbatov to Manchester City, we stuck in our oar, chartered a plane and flew the player to Manchester, agreeing terms with the player,” the legendary former Old Trafford boss wrote in Leading, his third autobiography.
In typical fashion, Levy wasn’t especially accommodating when the Red Devils were trying to poach one of his star players, upping the previously agreed fee and demanding young United striker Fraizer Campbell be included in the deal.
United eventually relented, sealing a then-club-record £30.75million deal, which included the loan of Campbell, on the final day of the 2008 summer transfer window. “That whole experience was more painful than my hip replacement,” Ferguson quipped.
At the time, United were champions of Europe and England, boasting an attack comprised of Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and soon-to-be Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo. Another striker was hardly what they needed, but Ferguson has always maintained the best time for a team to strengthen their hand is when they’re on top, and in Berbatov he saw someone who could offer something United didn’t have, believing the Bulgarian shared attributes with Old Trafford icons past.
“I thought he would make a difference,” Ferguson said, “because he had a certain composure and awareness that we lacked among our group of strikers. He displayed the ability of [Eric] Cantona or Teddy Sheringham: not lightning quick, but he could lift his head and make a creative pass”
A debut away to Liverpool offered the chance for Berbatov to make an instant impact, assisting a Tevez goal. But Ferguson’s Icarian hubris in fielding all four of his star attackers saw him fly too close to the sun and get burnt, their subsequently light midfield and backline exposed in a 2-1 defeat.
Berbatov’s first goal for his new club came at the end of September, part of a brace in a 3-0 Champions League victory over Aalborg, but his finished his maiden campaign in Manchester with just 13 goals from 43 appearances. Left on the bench for his side’s Champions League final defeat to Barcelona, questions were raised over whether United were wise to have moved for the former Spurs star, apparently unbalancing what had been a finely tuned attack.
At the end of the season, United parted ways with Tevez and Ronaldo, weakening their star-studded frontline beyond recognition, but simultaneously granting Berbatov a more prominent role within it. Another 13-goal return followed, the highlight of which unquestionably his stunning hat-trick in a 3-2 victory over Liverpool, punctuated by a spectacular second goal, controlling Nani’s centre on his thigh before finding the top corner, via the crossbar, with an improvised overhead kick.
The 2010/11 season was Berbatov’s best at Old Trafford on an individual level, finishing as the Premier League’s joint-highest scorer with 20 goals – he shared the Golden Boot with former team-mate Tevez, who had since joined Manchester City. But it wasn’t enough to earn him a place in the match day squad for the Champions League final at Wembley, again versus Barcelona, with Michael Owen Ferguson’s preferred option to act as back-up to Rooney and Javier Hernández. Understandably, Berbatov was disconsolate; the writing was on the wall: his future no longer laid at Old Trafford.
Berbatov remained with United the following term, featuring sparingly as he slipped down the pecking order, before joining Fulham for £5million in August 2012. His four seasons with the Red Devils can’t be looked back upon as a resounding success, but rather a spell marked out by fleeting moments of magic that displayed just what a special yet enigmatic talent he was, such as the hat-trick against Liverpool, or the breathtaking turn on he produced against West Ham United in 2008 to lay on an assist for Ronaldo.
“In training he practiced getting to the ball faster,” Ferguson wrote of Berbatov’s eventual demise at Old Trafford in his second book, My Autobiography. “But when play broke down he was inclined to walk. You couldn’t do that at our place.”
Though ever-more languid and unable to shake accusations of laziness, Berbatov remained capable of the sublime, earning Fulham’s Player of the Year award after scoring 15 goals in his first campaign at Craven Cottage, and winning the same distinction in 2014 with Monaco, having departed the Premier League.
With an aversion to running and a complete disinterest in all things defensive, the Bulgarian striker certainly had his flaws. But Berbatov was an enigma, a fantasist, a magician who inspired awe during his eight and a half years in England. He was able to do things with a football that dropped jaws and thrilled crowds. You couldn’t always depend on him to press, harry and graft, but you could bet your life on his touch being immaculate and his imagination making nothing seem impossible.