Nary a peep.
That’s what will happen.
As another Premiership campaign bullets down the stretch and Manchester United goes ahead by a few horse lengths, so dribbles to closure the likely Premiership career of a peculiar one, Dimitar Berbatov.
It’s almost incredulous that a player who was last year’s co-Golden Boot winner–20 in the Premiership last year to share the title with the one and only Carlos Tevez–has become such an afterthought both by his manager and by the ravenous English press. Can you name the last Golden Boot winner who was so thoroughly dismissed by the flaks in London as the Bulgarian?
Berbatov has dropped so low on Twitter vitriol and overall fanatical appeal that he’s fallen well below the “Daily Mail Line.”
(The Daily Mail line is the minimum click impact a player’s name brings in so that an English rag feels necessary to write anything–truth, conjecture, about their car, about stealing a donut–in order to drive traffic to their web site. In short, he’s been, pun intended, written off.)
The man, who perhaps is best identified on the pitch now not by the groans of failure but for his awkward shuffling trot with his fists tucked inside his jersey like he’s still warming up–will slink away from the Premiership champ and probably be known as Man United’s most expensive, and worst?, purchase ever–over $30M£ for someone who produced goals, but could not impose his pristine touches and bend a game to his will at the highest level.
But Berbatov’s exoneration of striking duties at Old Trafford signals also the graduation of the club and shows why–after all these years–Sir Alex Ferguson’s still got it as manager. It also condemns yet another Chelsea manager, Andres Villas-Boas, impaled way too early on the roasting spit that is constantly revolving at Stamford Bridge.
When Sir Alex bought “Berba” the idea was to provide a hold-up and disbursement pairing for Wayne Rooney and others to run off of, with the Bulgarian dropping dimes at will. With Ronaldo looking to leave Manchester the following year, Berba would come in and provide someone who would command attention of the opponent’s defense. Of course, he would also be counted on to display some of the silky moves he had done previously and put some balls in the back of the net.
Yet, despite a very respectable goal haul and despite accolades heaped on him as a misunderstood genius at the highest level, Berbatov’s “game”–and his role–is one that is slowly being exterminated across European leagues for the most part with the role of distributor moving a little further back the pitch. You’re either a false nine these days (Rooney, Van Persie) or you’re a physical target man who can threaten or you’re a speedy-slasher guy. A tweener?
The broader trend in global soccer has been for teams to press up the pitch, using a bevy of mite-sized attackers to not only create chances, but to also press the opponents defense (Jurgen, Jurgen).
In the attack, forwards are required to be more active and draw defenders either opening themselves up for a pass or open space for those behind them. Look no further most recently than Pep and Barcelona slotting in 20-year-old Cuenca at “forward” in a key Champion’s League tilt against A.C. Milan last month. Cuenca may have been labeled a “forward” but he stayed wide, merely drawing out the fullback to create space–more a winger who played advanced. Whoa is the striker who stays central and with perhaps effective but little movement.
On defense in this deployment, the rationale is quite simple–and analogous to the change in NFL defenses to employ two decent cover corners and mercilessly blitz the opponent with d-lineman, the linebackers, the safety and the rest of the kitchen sink.
The best players on a team are its attackers or rather should be. They have the speed, the skill, the guile. Soccer is about scoring. If you do not score, you can never win. You can draw, but you can’t win.
If you have a great attackers–see Fernando Torres at Liverpool–it changes everything–everything–behind them. If you have a boatload, even better.
And if your attackers can be convinced and counted on to in effect be your best defenders?
Note: If you don’t believe me, see Wigan’s win over Manchester United yesterday. Manchester United went 4-6 until the 75th minute, merely trying to move the ball up the floor against the “powerhouse” Latics. Wigan were inspired and their dedication to pressing the weaker players in the back–specifically Jonny Evans–won the day.
The notion–for speedy more capable players at all positions, with less of a focus perhaps on stout defending–is a gathering snowball.
The more teams who employ this method up top (Napoli, Barcelona, Manchester City) the more their foes must–at minimum–deal or game plan for it.
Nowhere was the trend more illuminated then in last year’s Champions League Final. Barcelona relentlessly put Manchester United to sleep. Why?
Manchester United had to expend all their energy to move the ball and play defense against Barca’s own relentless forwards that they merely tired and it was curtains for the “home” side. Barcelona was playing Messi and Villa vs. Ferdinand and Vidic. Not Messi and Villa vs. Rooney and Giggs.
This also leads us back to the demise of the great Berba.
Berba’s breed is no longer a viable option at the highest level–that is, a player who plays slowly and deliberately up top and casts aside the notion that active defending is not part of the resume of “true” forwards. (It would be perhaps “interesting” to see Berba in the Xavi role at Barcelona such is his touch in tight spaces and vision, but who am I kidding…). It’s fitting that Chicharito, near opposite to Berba in every way (procurement, game plan, positioning, heritage, hair!) is his replacement.
Long live the Berba
With a faster attack this year and Berba swapped out of the line-up (note: he still has 7 goals in 10 appearances against lesser sides), Manchester United has actually increased their scoring and improved their defense by actually playing higher up the pitch.
Look at the predominance of players who Ferguson has brought in since the ill-fated Berbatov transfer: Antonio Valencia, an attacking winger who can also deputize in defense; Ashley Young, a fleet-footed inverted winger who can also be a play maker, Chicharito, an offball wizard (Cuenca) who can score but is used more to create space and play defense; Phil Jones, a defender-midfielder who has the chops in possession to play in about 6 locations on the pitch. Even David DeGea, a quick goalie who can come off his line must more aggressively than Edwin Van Der Saar ever could.
Do you see Xavi often stray from the center of the pitch? No. Welcome back Paul Scholes. And Mr. Michael Carrick, you sir, owe your career continuing at United to less pressure on the defense in the center of the pitch.
Manchester United is never going to be Barcelona, but Ferguson realized he needed to compete with Barca (and Manchester City) on the pitch from a like-speed for like-speed perspective. Ferguson meshes with tiki-taka like Balotelli with rosary beads, but Fergie needed to counter it.
Now, look down yonder from Manchester to London–where Roman Abramovich brought in Andre Villas-Boas who would be the new Mourinho King.
Look at the players who Villas-Boas procured:
David Luiz, a light defending centerback who’s been known to maraud on the wings and even in the box from time-to-time; Kevin De Bruyne, Genk’s speedy left winger; Juan Mata, a jitter-bugging attacking midfielder who switches field better than Bo Jackson in his heyday.
Villas-Boas saw the European challenges his squad with a core of Frank Lampard and even Fernando Torres leading the line would have trying to compete at the highest level. he was bold in his strokes and aggressive in moving Chelsea’s stodgy core forward.
That his firing came because he lost the dressing room and too many games than is acceptable is probably in the end a good thing. If Chelsea’s management and is not able to look at their core side-by-side with how top clubs have changed, then AVB had entered a losing battle when he finished signing his employment contract. Chelsea’s elite blood will now more slowly ebb.
The Blues play Barça next week, and while they got by Napoli (thanks in no small part to Mata thank you very much), Barca move and defend at even faster rate.
How will Chelsea fair and who will they thank or blame?