Is Berbatov the answer to United’s midfield question?

Is Berbatov the answer to United’s creative gap in midfield?

For the past few seasons, Manchester United’s midfield has become a figure of ridicule, on par with Arsenal’s goalkeeper crisis and the perennial lack of width in Liverpool’s squad. As always, the fans disagree on the solution to Sir Alex’s dilemma, with factions clashing over rival cures: a proven Premiership playmaker like Luka Modric, a hard man in mould of Roy Keane, new signing Shinji Kagawa or a talent trawl for the next Ronaldo.

With his graceful power and embarrassment of elegant technique Dimitar Berbatov is, on paper, the quintessential creative target man for the modern game, yet he has at times struggled to shine on a consistent basis for United. However, the Bulgarian’s ability to read the game, thread a pass and keep possession have lead some admirers to suggest him as a left-field solution to a midfield that often seems to lack inspiration.

Defensively there are worries, largely due to the striker’s apparent lack of drive and work rate. As he famously commented in an interview: “you are not going to see me puffing around the pitch. There is a saying in Bulgaria that great quality doesn’t require much effort,” yet when the going gets tough in a team’s midfield engine room, some gut-busting is required.

While Berbatov often drops back in search of the ball when his team are out of possession, his lack of energy could be detrimental further down the pitch. How can a striker who already struggles to impose himself in some games possibly cope in the congested melee of a Premier League midfield contest?

Using Football Manager 2012, the Some Goals custom 2012/13 database and the Football Manager editor, Berbatov’s proficiency as a central midfielder was boosted to the same level as his natural position as a striker. The scenario was then simulated for the remainder of his United career.

Could Berbatov handle the responsibilities of a midfield?

The Bulgarian Veron

Dimitar Berbatov leaves United on a free transfer aged 37 in July 2015. His three year stint as a striker-cum-creative-midfielder was ultimately more beneficial to his appearance stats than it was to his team.

Although a useful back-up when paired with either Michael Carrick or Darren Fletcher, the Bulgarian was unable to stamp any real authority on his new midfield position. Neither was he a prolific playmaker, managing 24 assists in 105 appearances (21 from the bench), most of which were created from the comfort of his usual position up front alongside Wayne Rooney. Manchester United again finished the 2012/13 season trophy-less.

Tellingly, as Berbatov’s influence (and appearances) in midfield dwindled, United’s prospects of silverware grew. The arrival of Zdravko Kuzmanović from Stuttgart in August 2013 was decisive, with the Serb instantly establishing himself as a key figure in the club’s resurgence. With the midfield under new management, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men roared back to two consecutive league titles and the 2015 Champions League, the final won by a single Kuzmanović goal to deny Barcelona. Having captured his third major European trophy, seen off his Catalan bogeymen and seemingly solved the club’s midfield riddle, Sir Alex Ferguson finally retired as manager of Manchester United.

Full Manchester United career stats:
Dimitar Berbatov – MC/ST – 2008-2015
Apps: 254 (149 pre 2012/13)
Gls: 94 (56 pre 2012/13)
Asts: 38 (14 prior to 2012/13)
Honours post-2012: 2 Premier League titles, 1 Champions League

As a midfielder, the suspicions surrounding Berbatov’s lack of assertiveness and energy appear to hold some truth. While the Bulgarian could well make for a handy back-up to drop deep during an injury crisis, he lacks the drive to truly fill Manchester United’s midfield void.

However, Berbatov isn’t the only player already at Old Trafford touted as an in-house answer to the squad’s centre field problems. Read on as the midfield potentials of Phil Jones and Wayne Rooney are to the test.

Can Phil Jones power United to glory?

Phil Jones

Phil Jones is the last player you’d worry about being too relaxed or lazy for life as a Premier League midfielder. In fact, some have criticised Jones for having a little too much pep. His performances, which usually involve tearing across football pitches and through tackles, challenges and opposition players, have led some to label him “a headless chicken”, or worse: a typically overrated, blood and thunder “English-style” player.

Although able to play out of central midfield from the beginning of the simulation, it wasn’t until the 2014/15 season that Jones made the transition up-field and out of defence. Before that he was United’s utility man, playing anywhere across the back four and in central midfield; flexibility that helped his team score two back-to-back Premier League titles and the 2014 Champions League. These achievements satisfied Sir Alex Ferguson enough for him to retire one year earlier than in Berbatov’s scenario.

Jones’ multi-faceted utility role, while vital to United’s squad depth over two successful seasons, denied the highly rated youngster a consistent run over his 76 appearances in one, defined position. This all changed however with the arrival of new boss, Louis Van Gaal whose plans for a more aggressive and attacking 4-4-2 Old Trafford called for Jones to step out of defence permanently.Sketched on paper, the Dutchman’s formation would have looked more like a wide 4-2-3-1 with wingers.

While he relied on a high defensive line and intensive pressing, the system was infact quite rigid, with six players designated as attackers, pushing forward from the flanks, full-back, the central striker’s position and the hole. For such a strict and offensive set-up to work, Van Gaal needed a solid midfield foundation to build off that he could also rely on to quickly break down the opposition when United lost possession. Enter Darren Fletcher and Phil Jones.

In his new home alongside Fletcher in a midfield two, Jones made 167 appearances in four seasons between 2014 and 2018 (42, 43, 36 and 42 respectively), with only 27 of which came off the bench. With the utility man no longer available to cover injuries at the back, Simon Kjaer was signed in the summer of 2014 to add defensive quality in depth, with Leonel Galeano arriving in 2016 for similar reasons. Unfortunately, under Van Gaal’s stewardship Manchester United won only the 2016 League Cup in his four years in charge. He retired from the game in June 2018, with Markus Babbel taking over the reigns at Old Trafford.

All blood and thunder and no intelligence?

Wanting to make his own mark on his new squad, Babbel accepted a £25M offer from Tottenham Hotspur for the 26-year-old Jones, ending his United career. In his place, the new manager brought in Bayern Munich’s David Alaba for £18.75M, a player who himself had started out as an attacking minded full-back before blossoming into a physically dominant playmaker. The new direction was clear, with Babbel wanting a productive and industrious player able to create as a well as destroy.

Although his performances were rarely spectacular, throughout his six simulated seasons as a Manchester United midfielder, Phil Jones was solid and consistent enough to be relied on by his coach and team. He was rarely a creative force producing only 27 assists in six years but he fulfilled the roles asked of him, as a utility man and midfield deflector shield, effectively and with minimal fuss.

The poverty of silverware in the four years following Ferguson’s retirement are a blot on Jones’ Old Trafford midfield career however. That may sound harsh, especially considering the converted defender notched up just 13 man of the match awards in six years and was was no match winner, but the vacancy he had been selected to fill in United’s midfield demanded one: Bryan Robson, Paul Ince, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes. Perhaps Van Gaal’s faith in Fletcher and Jones was misplaced. Like Babbel, rather than relying on the Englishman’s limitless ability to run and hassle the opposition, the Dutchman should have invested in a player, perhaps to play alongside Jones, whose commitment and drive could also offer something going forward.

Full Manchester United career stats:
Phil Jones – MC/CB/DR – 2011-2018
Apps: 283
Gls: 29 (2 pre 2012/13)
Asts: 30 (3 prior to 2012/13)
Honours post-2012: 2 Premier League titles, 1 Champions League, 1 League Cup

Rooney: The true future of Manchester United’s midfield?

Wayne Rooney

At times last season, Wayne Rooney was deployed as a makeshift midfielder amid yet another Old Trafford injury crisis. His performances received mixed reviews; some applauded his work rate while others criticised his inability to “keep it simple” and retain possession. The reality of the cameos probably falls somewhere between the two camps, with Rooney unsurprisingly looking like a striker making the best out of being played in an unfamiliar position. Regardless, Sir Alex Ferguson was full of praise for his adaptable forward following his midfield outing against Otelul Galati:

“He’s got the appetite for it, he’s got the energy levels for it and I thought his awareness of people around him last night was really good. He disciplined himself last night and didn’t belt off forward all the time. He held his position quite well and played as a natural centre midfield player. He provided a lot of our forward passes and I thought that was good.”

Along with his stocky frame, he already possesses many of the tools required to take on the midfield mantle of Paul Scholes. When dropping deep to dictate play he often displays the vision, passing range and stamina required, and a quick search of YouTube will unearth various videos of Rooney switching the play with long, raking diagonal balls, directing counter attacks with instant, precise through-balls and acting as a passing hub for others. He’s also more than capable of scoring goals from inside and outside the box.

Picture the scene: On a hot, muggy July morning in the summer of 2012, Sir Alex Ferguson sits in his office at United’s Carrington training base plotting the season to come. With the bitter failure of last year’s campaign still ringing in his ears, he decides to take radical action and ask Wayne Rooney to become United’s new midfield general. His decision will turn out to be a revelation for both club and player.

Robson, Ince, Keane, Scholes… Rooney?

In July 2024, Wayne Rooney retires at the age of 38 as a bona fide club legend and one of Manchester United’s most celebrated and decorated captains. Over the 12 seasons simulated, Rooney inspired United to six Premier League titles, two Champions League wins (and one beaten final), a World Club Championship and numerous runner-up positions in the League Cup and FA Cup. He is now included as one of the central midfielders in United’s Best Ever XI having made 401 appearances throughout the simulation, contributing 111 goals and 114 assists.

Rooney’s collection of personal awards is impressive:

Golden Ball 2013
Best Player in the Champions League 2014
Third – World Player of the Year 2014
Premier League Supporters Player of the Year 2014, 2018
Golden Ball runner up in 2014
Shortlisted for the Golden Ball in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018
Best Plater in Europe runner up 2014, 2015
English Footballer of the Year runner up 2014, 2018
Third – Champions League Golden Boot 2014
Included in the World Team of the Year 2013, 2014, 2017
Included in Premier League Team of the Year 2013, 2014

The impact of Rooney’s move into midfield was dramatic. With Ferguson building the team around the abilities of his new box-to-box playmaker, United sent their retiring manager off in style with two league titles in 2012/13 and 2013/14, and a Champions League win in 2014. Such high profile successes also brought increased transfer money and status to Old Trafford, allowing the club to fight off the financial threats of Manchester City and Chelsea.

Andrea Villas-Boas was the Scotsman’s replacement, but after struggling to compete in any competitions besides the World Club Championship, AVB was sacked in favour of PSG’s Carlo Ancelotti in February. Although Villas-Boas’ tenure was short-lived, he did bring Ganso, to United, who would become one of Rooney’s favourite team mates.

Under Ancelotti, Rooney became known as a “tireless midfielder” and was made captain. United picked up another three league titles and continued to add more stars to their squad, including Miralem Pjanic, Jack Collison, Alan Dzagoev and Andile Jali. Rooney’s talents and abilities were still central to the team however, producing a career high of 18 assists in the title-winning 2019/20 season aged 33. A season later however, his form dipped and United struggled. Carlo Ancelotti retired and questions were raised over the ability of Rooney to continue to play at the highest level. Markus Babbel was appointed to take the club forward and kept the club captain on, who reinvented himself, just like Giggs and Scholes before him, as a decisive, utility impact sub able to play across the midfield and frontline.

Can Rooney adapt his game around skill and vision once his legs start to fade?

In Babbel’s term, the club struggled for silverware and the German resigned at the end of the 2022/23 season, making way for Scotsman Derek McInnes who would lead United to the Premier League and Champions League double in Rooney’s final season. However, by Chrismas 2023, the veteran club captain rarely played, instead presiding over the squad and its youngsters like Gary Neville in his final year.

Throughout football history, lateral thinking and counterintuitive ideas have pushed players and their teams to new heights in unexpected ways – think Hungary and their withdrawn forward play. Rooney’s conversion from talismanic forward to midfield general may seem to some as a waste of a top-level striker. As illustrated in this simulation however, when given the responsibility of running a game and leading from the heart of a team, Rooney’s effectiveness can be further enhanced by allowing more and more players to link up with him and benefit from his work.

If Manchester United are to promote from within to solve their midfield problems, then Wayne Rooney, according to these simulations, is the stand out choice by far.

Full Manchester United career stats:
Wayne Rooney – MC/ST – 2004-2024
Apps: 734 (366 pre 2012/13)Third most appearances for United behind Ryan Giggs and Bobby Charlton.
Gls: 293 (182 pre 2012/13)Manchester United’s all-time top scorer
Asts: 200 (86 prior to 2012/13)
Honours post-2012: 6 Premier League titles, 2 Champions League, 1 Club World Championship

What do you think of the findings above? Who would you want manning your midfield engine room?

2 thoughts on “Is Berbatov the answer to United’s midfield question?

  1. Really enjoyed this Greg – and I think it is spot on. Berbatov would struggle even in a deep-lying role, as in the PL you need the workrate even there. He might do better in Europe where the pace is slower, and so the Veron analogy holds well. I believe that Phil Jones would struggle there – he doesn’t have the vision – but Rooney could, quite literally, be the ace in the hole. Great work on the simulation.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment and read Musa, it really is appreciated!

      I think Rooney has got all the skills to excel as United’s next midfield fulcrum, but I worry about the effects of his lifestyle outside of the game. In some ways he’s football’s answer to Ricky Hatton with his off season drinking, eating and smoking, which are all going to catch up with him as he approaches 30. Hopefully Fergie can have a word, otherwise I can’t see him replicating the longevity of Giggs and Scholes regardless of how much ability he may have.

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