Amongst all the big names and the glamorous strikers that have graced the Premier League — such as Thierry Henry, Alan Shearer, or the graceful Dennis Bergkamp — there has perhaps never been a striker who represented the perfect blend of frustration and brilliance more than Dimitar Berbatov.
Born in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, Berbatov was a huge fan of Marco van Basten, one of the finest forwards in the history of the game. Van Basten’s deadly combination of technique and finishing is what Berbatov wanted to inculcate in his own game. At the time, AC Milan was Berbatov’s favourite club. However, it would not be for long.
The 1996 European Championships saw the rise of a young Englishman through the ranks, and a 15-year-old Berbatov was amazed. Alan Shearer’s meteoric rise after a title-winning season with Blackburn Rovers was the start of something special for his career; Berbatov aspired to play for Shearer’s club Newcastle United, so much so that his mother revealed that he used to go to bed in the Magpies’ jersey, such was his admiration for the English forward.
The Bulgarian international took his first steps in professional football with CSKA Sofia, a club that had nurtured another Bulgarian in the 1980s – a certain Hristo Stoichkov, who later became an integral part of Johan Cruyff’s dream team at FC Barcelona.
Turning to Germany
At the turn of the century, Bayer Leverkusen picked up Berbatov’s talents for a bargain deal of €1.3m, and so began his exploits in the Bundesliga for Die Werkself.
The UEFA Champions League has always been a platform for special players to showcase just what they’re made of. In Leverkusen’s run to the 2002 final, Berbatov played a key role.
One of his finest goals for Leverkusen came against AS Roma in the Champions League when he received a pass with his left foot, gave it a lift, flicked it around the onrushing defender, and chipped the Roma keeper in goal to score a brilliant effort.
Unfortunately, in a season that could’ve been a historic treble winning season for Klaus Toppmoller’s side, they ended up being runners-up in every competition they took part in. After the disappointment of a season ended, the frustration was enhanced by the departure of stars like Michael Ballack and Ze Roberto to rivals Bayern Munich. However, Berbatov stayed and enhanced his reputation.
Record breaker in England
In May 2006, he began the next chapter of his career at Tottenham Hotspur, setting the stage for a dominant spell in the Premier League. Spurs paid a fee of €16 million which made him the most expensive Bulgarian footballer ever — a record he’d later break.
It was an exciting time to be a Spurs player. Martin Jol, who was the manager at the time, had managed to guide the club to UEFA Cup football (now known as the UEFA Europa League) as well as League Cup success and Berbatov was a key part of the London club’s successes in this period.
Berbatov’s strike partnership with Robbie Keane was a particularly effective one. Despite the fact that both players weren’t close off the pitch, the Bulgarian was always aware of Keane’s positioning on the pitch and Keane did the same for Berbatov. Berbatov ended up scoring a total of 69 goals in his 154 appearances for Spurs.
However, it wasn’t long before there was another record move on the cards for the Bulgarian.
Things were going well for Spurs; they were progressing to important semi-finals and quarter-finals in domestic competitions as well as Europe. Winning the League Cup was an important moment for the Spurs fans during Berbatov’s time at the club.
At the time, Sir Alex Ferguson was known to be a big fan of Berbatov. Ferguson had been quoted by newspapers at the time that he was interested in signing the Bulgarian. Naturally, the Spurs board were displeased and complained to the Premier League about Manchester United’s behaviour. All of this affected Berbatov’s mind before the 2008-09 season started and his heart was set on a move to United.
On transfer deadline day, Sept. 1, 2008, after much struggle with the paperwork in the late hours of the window, Berbatov was officially a Manchester United player.
He was once again the most expensive Bulgarian footballer, with United paying a fee of £30.75 million to Spurs for his services. Tottenham had also accepted a bid from United’s rivals Manchester City; however, just like Robin van Persie did back in 2012, Berbatov chose red, saying that he “would not even have thought about Manchester City”.
Red half of Manchester
Few would argue against the fact that Berbatov peaked at Manchester United. Joining a strike force that included the likes of Carlos Tevez, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Wayne Rooney, the Bulgarian had all the quality around him to succeed. However, he was different from the strikers United had at the time.
Time seemed to slow down when Berbatov had the ball at his feet. He wasn’t one to run around the pitch and run his socks off; he was an intelligent player who relied more on his positioning and attacking instincts rather than his work-rate. Some argue he was languid, lazy even, because of his style of play. Others would argue he was different from the others, in a class of his own.
The 2010-11 season was by far, one of Berbatov’s most prolific seasons. He will always be remembered for his five-goal haul against Blackburn Rovers, a 7-1 victory that was a historic result for him and his club. One of those five goals that he scored exemplified his style of play in the best way possible.
He picked up the ball deep in the defensive third and played a lovely one-two with Patrice Evra down the left flank, advancing to a central area where he would have multiple options to expand the United attack. He then found the ball played into his path again by Evra, and looked up to assess his options. Without even controlling the ball, he found Nani on the right flank with a sumptuous outside of the foot pass.
Nani then advanced into the area and looked up for options, while Berbatov made his way cleverly into the penalty box without breaking a sweat. He called for the pass from Nani and curled it past Paul Robinson in the Blackburn goal with class. Watching that goal gives you a true sense of his genius.
With Berbatov, creating beautiful moments worth savouring was what he always did. A magnificent haul against Blackburn wasn’t the only highlight of the season.
Manchester United vs Liverpool is always a classic, and if you’re a United player, there is no better game to make your name in than this one. And Berbatov did exactly that, scoring a hat-trick at Old Trafford against the Reds, including a delightful overhead kick which sent the Stretford End to cloud nine.
In that moment, the fans knew that Ferguson had bought a special player in Berbatov. He ended that season with 21 goals, sharing the golden boot with former United player Tevez.
“Berbatov gets a lot of criticism but he has great ability and is a quality finisher. It is unfortunate for him that he has a laid-back attitude. But for me, he has always been top quality” – Sir Alex Ferguson
Berbatov found equal joy in creating beautiful assists as he did in scoring goals. While most strikers look to consistently score every week and get their names on the scoresheet, Berbatov was the perfect partner in attack for the likes of Rooney, Javier Hernandez, and Danny Welbeck. Unselfish, intelligent, and classy, he just knew where to be when the ball dropped to him.
Unfortunately, his time at United lasted just four years, and exclusion from the UEFA Champions League final against Barcelona at Wembley hurt him.
“Maybe I should have gone when he [Ferguson] left me out of the squad for the Champions League final. I know he’s the boss, but he has lost, to some extent, my respect because of the way he treated me.” – Berbatov, after leaving United for Fulham.
Berbatov then reunited with former boss Martin Jol at Fulham, and the pair enjoyed a brief renaissance where the 31-year-old managed to score 15 goals in all competitions for Cottagers. The season was capped by Berbatov scoring against Southampton, then taking off his shirt to reveal the words “keep calm and pass me the ball.”
It just goes to show, Berbatov was never afraid of keeping the ball and taking responsibility in attack. While in his younger days he enjoyed twisting and turning defenders, as he grew older, Berbatov’s technique became more refined and it was all about his one-touch passing and sublime finishing, he was evolving.
In January 2014, Monaco became the next destination for Berbatov, to be part of the principality’s big project and cover for the injured Radamel Falcao. In France, Berbatov once again provided the fans with some delightful goals before spells in Greece and India.
Modern strikers like Robert Lewandowski, Luis Suarez, and Harry Kane have all set the bar sky high for the new number 9.
But the likes of Gabriel Jesus, Roberto Firmino, and Thomas Muller exemplify that a striker’s job is not just about scoring. Berbatov was of the same ilk, he was happy to sacrifice for the team and enjoyed collective achievements rather than individual glory.
The Bulgarian had the technique of van Basten and the finishing ability of Shearer, but did not possess their work-rate. This is what made him quite unpredictable and hard to mark, not because he did not run, but because his attacking intelligence was far superior.
He might not have scored hundreds and hundreds of goals, however, he left his fans with some unique moments that will stand the test of time.
“I always tend to think my goals are beautiful goals. That is what I want to score; beautiful goals.” – Berbatov
Berbatov’s work, from assists to goals, almost always caught the eye. After all, that’s what artists do.
Featured image credit: Arley Byrne (@_yerlA)