Dimitar Berbatov has drawn lots of criticism for the appearance of his playing style despite garnering plenty of positive results.
I’ve had enough of one of the stupidest yet most polarizing debates in English football: is Dimitar Berbatov lazy, or is his style simply overwhelmingly technical? The answer is simple: it’s a combination of both, and in the end it doesn’t matter.
It’s just his playing style, there’s no other way to put it.
First off, I’m pretty sure no footballer could reach the levels of success he has, especially coming off the bench most of his time at United, if they were just plain old “lazy.” We’re going to tackle this in two parts. The first will prove that in a way, yes, he is lazy. The second part will prove to you why it doesn’t matter and this whole argument is stupid.
Is Dimitar Berbatov lazy?
Yes and no. Is lazy the right word? There are two official definitions of the word “lazy” from Dictionary.com, and they provide something quite interesting. The first definition: “Unwilling to work or use energy.” Does that apply? I think it does not. That definition has implications of a lack of effort, as characterized by the phrase “unwilling to work.” I do not believe for a second that the Bulgarian has effort issues. Take this for example: a heatmap of Berbatov’s game in the Newcastle win in December:
That’s not the heatmap of a player unwilling to put forth effort. He’s all over the pitch, contributing defensively (which I believe he’s done more at Fulham than he ever did at United) and both in chance-creating and chance-finishing positions up front.
However, there is a second definition of lazy. It reads, “Characterized by lack of effort or activity.” We’ve already discussed effort. However, watching Berbatov’s game, there clearly is a style to his game that could fall under the “lack of activity” portion. He’s even said it himself:
“I like to play with beauty and grace – that has always been my philosophy from a young age. That’s how I play and that’s what football is about. Plenty of football players play like this and that is what I want to watch. I don’t want to watch players puffing around the pitch. You see games where the ball is flying from one box to another and it makes my neck hurt. That is not football for me.”
So he’s not a runner. Does that mean he’s “lazy?” Well, as we’ve seen here, no he’s not based on the effort section, but yes he is in the simple terms of a general lack of activity. So, depending on your interpretation of the word, you could have an argument.
Does Berbatov’s technical ability outweigh his low energy output?
Absolutely, there’s no question about it.
Dimitar’s an interesting character. He’s not a guy who likes the limelight, and he’s certainly not someone who wants to be noticed. He just wants to play. Mark Ogden wrote an interesting article for The Telegraph in January in which he told an anicdote that very accurately describes the Bulgarian’s character traits. He scored a hat-trick for United against Liverpool to win the match 3-2, and after the match he attempted to sneak through the player’s lot to his car to avoid speaking to even the Red Devils’ own in-house TV channel.
However, many mistake this for a lack of desire. It’s not at all. Different people express themselves in many different ways. It’s just how he is as a person.
And the same can be said for his playing style.
Think about watching Dimitar play with Fulham. We all know about Martin Jol’s passing and possession style of play. Now, when have you ever seen Fulham play a long ball into the middle of the pitch? Almost never. When they do, who’s ALWAYS on the receiving end? Berbatov, of course. It’s almost like he’s got magnets in his boots. No matter if he’s playing up front or as a Number 10, he’s the only guy Jol will allow the rest of the players to play a long ball to. Look no farther than this past weekend’s win at Stoke. Here’s his passes received:
So many long balls! Now, to be fair, he played up front, so of course he’s going to get most of the long balls to an extent. But if you take a look at the passes received of even the wingers and of Bryan Ruiz, only Askhan Dejagah got more than 1 long ball, and his were 2 from the goalkeeper and 2 passes square across the pitch. Berba’s the only one.
An article by James Andrew for The Daily Mail from back in December brought up the previous month’s 3-3 draw with Arsenal from the Emirates. “Against Arsenal last month” the article reads, “with Fulham 2-0 down after 25 minutes he single handily dragged Jol’s team back into the game and earning a point by scoring two and creating the other one for Kacaniklic.”
That match couldn’t be a better example of how Berbatov is a master of placement, selection, and technical ability. He filled the leadership role that day, something he’s not terribly fond of doing (a leader isn’t exactly someone who sneaks out past reporters after a hat-trick), after Fulham fell down 2-0 early.
Look at the video. On the first goal (0:31), he may not have snuck past reporters that day at Old Trafford, but instead of running laps around the penalty area until he found an opening, he snuck behind defenders and directed his header in. For the second one, his assist to Kacaniklic (0:40), SURPRISE! Dimi is actually somewhat fast! How can you say someone making that quality of a run demonstrates a lack of effort? You can’t. His cross shows his ability with the ball, as he picks out the farthest of 3 possible targets. And for his second goal and the team’s third, albeit a penalty, there was never any doubt, and he cooly slots the ball. Is there a more Berbatov-esque penalty? Don’t think so.
Still not convinced? This:
Let’s end this section with a quote from one of the greatest managers of all time, Sir Alex Ferguson:
“I don’t think Dimitar was a failure here. He did a great job. The problem is I had choices and, at his age, it’s not easy to be part of those choices when he’s not playing. Some people like to see players run through brick walls all the time. Dimitar is not that type of player, but he is a very talented boy who had a decent goalscoring record here.”
I’ll let you take from that what you want.
Does Berbatov’s playing style limit what system he can play in?
Yes. I don’t think there’s any question about this, and we’ve seen it first-hand this season. It’s the one big downfall to his vastly distinctive style, and why many people often do come to the conclusion that he’s lazy. Because when he isn’t put in a system that suits his style, it ends very very poorly.
When Berbatov was at Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson recognized his immense talent and acknowledged he was a massive asset. Unfortunately for the Bulgarian, it became all too clear over time that the style SAF wanted to play relied more on speed and accuracy of passing on the go than Berbatov’s special skills on the ball, and thus his role slowly but surely diminished. Barney Chilton, editor of Red News fanzine, said of his time at United, “We signed a square piece and wanted to put him in a round hole.” He just didn’t fit. Given that fact though, do you think Fergie would have stuck with a player who so poorly fit United’s schemes if he didn’t bring something else massive to the table? Absolutely not.
Martin Jol, however, has built Fulham’s blueprint this season around Berbatov. Everything runs through him, whether he’s up front or in the Number 10. There was a point in time this season when, because of Fulham’s dire situation in the central midfield for a period of time, Bryan Ruiz was slotted so far back in his attacking midfield role (almost a Dembele-like position) that Berbatov’s feeder system up front was completely dry. This sincerely hurt his production, and it appeared to many of us, including myself, that Berbatov had lost interest, and was almost regretting his journey to Craven Cottage in search of more playing time. This is a situation of how poorly it can go when the team’s situation doesn’t perfectly fit his style. Berbatov had to physically work for his chances, and that’s not how he plays. However, I am kicking myself for thinking that. It’s obvious that’s not the case, and he’s stuck with it, once again becoming a vital cog in the machine that’s picked up 7 points from their last 4 matches in the league.
Bryan Ruiz knew he was invested the whole time:
“Whatever it looks like, he does care. He is a different person, he doesn’t talk to everyone, but when you go up to talk to him, he is open. You see sometimes by his body language that he really wants to win. That means he cares. He is one of the best players I’ve played with. I don’t remember one player with the same skills as him.”
Why none of this matters:
He gets results. So what if he’s lazy? If put in a situation where he can play his way, which Fulham are currently providing him, he will put up the goals and assists, and he’s done just that this season and in the past. He’s won a golden boot and a title with Manchester United. 9 goals and 4 assists this year for the Whites. What more could we ask for, given the state of the midfield behind him? The new year has been especially kind to Berbatov. Since Southampton on December 26, Dimitar’s scored 4 goals and provided an assist over an 8-match span. Here’s to hoping he keeps it up, this season, and beyond.
So let’s please never have this discussion again. Cool? Thanks.