Is Fulham forward Dimitar Berbatov a puzzle wrapped in a riddle? No, says Mike Forrest. The answer is far simpler than that.
Contrary to popular belief, Dimitar Berbatov is not an enigma. Nor is he a code that could only be cracked by Alan Turing. He is human. Of course this means that he has an ego, like the rest of us, but Berbatov in his first season and a bit at Fulham has let his ego run wild. There is a strong possibility that if Berbatov fails to lasso his ego and tame it that he could permanently tarnish his legacy in England. And surely, surely for any egotist legacy is vital?
Egotistical is not an adjective used to describe Fulham. As a midtable team, their success is built on teamwork and a strong work ethic. This is not to call Berbatov lazy as he often does his share of defensive work. However teamwork and work ethic can be negatively impacted upon by a player’s attitude. This is where my criticism of Berbatov lies. For every misplaced pass or every poorly timed run that his teammates make the utter malicious, repugnant scorn that Berbatov is only too quick to display is quite something. His look emanates such a putrid displeasure at his teammates. A demigod such as Berba should not have to put up with such insolence.
It is the constant public display of disapproval etched on his face along with flailed arms that erodes work ethic. If I were a Fulham player, I would not break a sweat for Berbatov. The Bulgarian had the potential to come to Fulham and leave a legend. He could have been a father figure to young players like Kačaniklić, instead of berating them at every naive mistake. He must remember that he chose to come to Fulham. He rejected Juventus and Fiorentina to come to Fulham, no one forced him. Furthermore he is handsomely paid to be at a club of his choosing. This is another factor that has the potential to erode teamwork, the 100,000 grand a week man waiting to berate me, why should I bust a gut to get forward and create space for him?
Of course this is not to suggest that Berbatov is not without his genius. His goal against Stoke City displayed a seductive technique. His swerved passes with the outside of the foot when they come off are delightful, whilst his ability to retain position from harassing defenders show a subtle strength and quick feet from such a lackadaisical demeanour. Then as well there are his 15 goals last season for Fulham which played a pivotal role in keeping Fulham afloat in the Premier League. Yet there is a lingering malaise among Fulham fans when it comes to Berbatov. For every sublime pass, I instantaneously remember countless more times where he had a vengeful manner for a pass to him that didn’t exactly go to feet from Steve Sidwell or whoever else.
Similarly Berbatov seems to have given himself a licence to play wherever he wants. At one point against Newcastle, he popped up behind Scott Parker and Steve Sidwell. He was dropped deeper than Fulham’s two center midfielders. This left Darren Bent totally isolated. Bent is not a retainer of possession. He creates space between the opposing midfield and defence by making defenders drop deep. However this space went largely unoccupied as Berbatov who was meant to be in the hole simply wasn’t there. By not being there, Fulham for large parts of the game would be unable to retain possession meaning Newcastle would have prolonged periods of attacks. Every action has a reaction. By Berbatov deciding that his technical ability was needed in midfield, there was one less option upfront, one less outlet that could retain possession and take the pressure off of Fulham’s defence.
This is not the first game that Berbatov has dropped so deep. I concede to him that it must be frustrating seeing plodders such as Sidwell in central midfield when he came from a club that had Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick pulling the strings. In reply I would suggest the phrase ‘caveat emptor’ or buyer beware. He has been in England long enough to know that Fulham are a midtable team and with it brings a certain degree of mediocrity. He knew what he was signing on for. If he genuinely did not want to have to suffer the indignation of playing with average players he should have signed for Juventus or Fiorentina. So why did he sign for little old Fulham? The answer? Martin Jol.
Berbatov once said that Martin Jol is a coach he trusts and would die for. At Tottenham together they conjured some fine attacking football. Any Premier League fanatic will remember Berbatov’s ingenuity against Charlton Athletic in 2007. No adjective can aptly describe his touch that took him around the bewildered El Karkouri before he calmly slotted the ball into the back of the net. However Tottenham have better players than Fulham. With better players it is easier to implement a fluid attacking style. Trying to implement such a strategy with an ageing squad and at a club that refuses to spend on transfer fees is nigh impossible.
Yet Jol has amassed a squad of good attacking players in Ruiz, Bent, Taraabt and Berbatov. If he can mould and nudge his side to a more successful attacking team then we might see Berbatov lose some of his apathy and begin to enjoy his football again (or frown less which would be the Berba equivalent.) The problem for Jol is that when the players that fans associate with his tenure such as Ruiz or Berbatov fail to fire, fans offer a grand diagnosis that this is clear evidence that Jol is not suited to Fulham. Against Newcastle, Fulham put in a decent, defensive away performance. A defensive away performance is not something that Berbatov enjoys. But it is for this very reason, a defensive performance, that Jol needs his genius, his kingpin to maintain discipline and occupy the hole just behind Bent. If Berbatov cannot be disciplined and maintain his position not only will the goals dry up along with his genius but the coach, Jol, he said he would once die for, Berba could end up being the death of him.