Finding two players more divisive to their own club’s fan-base than Michael Carrick and Dimitar Berbatov is a formidable challenge. The two players should each be approaching a status of senior statesmen within the minds of the United faithful. Instead, they are viewed with suspicion and pessimism: either as incapable, off-the-pace dead weights; mystery men enigmas without a proper place or purpose within the United squad; or martyrs for those who wish to elevate themselves above the ‘idiot masses’. It is common to hear calls for their departures, be it by club transfer lists or under their own steam, to supposedly save their careers at another club more ‘suited’ to ‘their’ football.
There are a multitude of reasons why supporters take certain footballers to heart, or don’t. It could be longevity and loyalty; a fanaticism for the cause and club that the fans can relate to; a certain personality, ‘coolness’ or even some abstract ‘aura’; the embodiment of values or their approach to the game; or sometimes purely for celebrated feats, rosy memories, or sheer, irrepressible talent.
The English football fan’s mindset is often generalised and lampooned as some reactionary, bigoted agenda that favours so-called ‘anti-football’ and thuggish, leg-breaking bloodlust. Whilst many do fall rather quickly for a player of graft, grit and will over skilled yet casual players, it is far from the barbaric dribbling it is portrayed as. The qualities of hard work, passion and athleticism, and the men that embody them, are romanticised as ‘old school’, ‘proper’ and ‘real’. They are the noble workhorses and headless chicken-monsters of tub-thumping bravado and honest industry.
Consider the case of Wayne Rooney. With his vision, skill and ability to improvise on the ball, he is the closest England have come to having a genuine ‘number 10’ in decades, but his is an extremely Anglicised take on the role. The Rooney caricature of the gut-busting sprint downfield for that last ditch tackle to save the day has helped him win grudging respect from England and opposition fans alike, at least when he’s on form for the national team! With help from his branding, he has been built himself up into some intense, talismanic ‘lionheart’, whose determination and talent appear endlessly intertwined and codependent. Going by the pre-World Cup hype ‘Write The Future’ ad by Nike in 2010, its clear which attributes of his are most marketable to Joe Public.
If Bulgaria had made it to South Africa, it’s doubtful that we would have enjoyed a similar slice of advertised glory starring Berbatov, mainly because he’s retired from international football. If we had, however, the likely micro-movie segment of glory would have been the antithesis of Fabio Cannavaro’s glamour shoot.
The commercial would have instead faded to a stark, noir grey hue landscape accompanied by some smooth, lounging gypsy jazz. The slo-mo camera woud lean up, spying a ball hurtling high above the pitch. Cut to Berbatov’s passive visage; lingering at a touchline cocktail bar, a pluming cigarillo smoldering in his hand, a single malt resting on the lean-to counter. His gaze would linger, deep into the middle distance and hold, as if contemplating the very essence of his existential purpose. Inwardly he scoffs as the backing music evaporates to the sizzling and snapping of the hi-hats. With a final long, smooth draw of tobaccoed scotch the barfly rises from his paused, lazing recline to leisurely saunter forwards. He clears his throat, before stroking down the wild ball dead onto the green and licking a shot away into the back of the net. Cantering away, he inexplicably uproots the corner flag, revealing it to be a double bass, proceeding to bound out some effortlessly furious Charles Mingus as a casual celebration of disconnected glory. The screen shimmers and swashes like some horrific dream sequence and as we find ourselves dumped at the feet of the commercial’s Ronaldo-as-Michael-Jackson finale, scrambling for the rewind button to confirm to our trembling retinas of what we just saw.
If there were such a thing as an ‘art-house’ footballer, Berbatov would be the archetypical auteur. In his own words: “you are not going to see me puffing around the pitch. […] great quality doesn’t require much effort”, and indeed he is a player of quality rather than quantity. Watching him command the ball is a beautiful thing in itself. He needn’t perform some fancy trick or elaborate trademark skill; just watching him effortlessly kill off a maydaying stray ball with little more than the nonchalant yawn of the foot, is a feast of entertainment for the eyes. You can find yourself suckered into every detail of his technique like some hypnotised layman’s study of a master craftsmanship at work.
To the mindset of the hard-nosed admirers of sweat and blood wringing endeavor, his laid back intricacies are signifiers of sheer lazy extravagance. In the UK especially, our passion for football is wrapped up in the pseudo-class identities and values of of ‘the working man’, by which standards Berbatov’s cool aloofness is processed as the snobby haughtiness of a bourgeois art student. He is the fancy foreign language film that requires too much appreciation to be instantly appreciated and is therefor redundantly futile.
Compared to the fanatical exertions of Wayne Rooney, captain of industry, Berbatov is of course a laxidasical fat cat hiding behind over-posed gifts, but when viewed on his own merits, his sophisticated abilities dictate that he is treated differently. He is a touch of rare class that can augment a team’s abilities with imagination and exquisite flair. Berbatov has, in some ways, become the aristocrat of the Old Trafford officer class, parachuted in the trouble spots that demand the influence and presence of a skillful commissar. Take the season opener away to West Brom for instance: as United drove forward for the winning goal, desperation seemed to get the better of them as they over-thought and overplayed their football, becoming rushed and clumsily ineffective going forward. Off the bench, Berbatov steadied the ship from the front and helped his team rediscover their clarity and fluency going forwards.
Whilst many view his recent lack of match time as a hint that his days at Old Trafford are numbered, the Bulgarian has never been a player for every game. Considering the teams United have had to face so early into the season (Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Man City up next in quick succession) it is quite possible that Sir Alex selected a line-up fit for such a run. Berbatov’s time will come though. When facing the mid-tablers and besieged relegation battlers, his specialised set of skills will be invaluable in unlocking and punishing their tight-knit defences and parked buses. In matches where he is afforded that extra bit of time on the ball, Berbatov can create real magic unlike no other.
Whilst the languid Andy Garcia look-a-like is seen as idle, ineffective and arrogant by his detractors something amounting to contemptible pity is reserved for Michael Carrick. This is the same Michael Carrick who was once identified by Xavi as the player Barcelona were most keen on stopping before the first of their recent Champions League final victories over United. In the Catalan maestro’s own words: “Carrick gives United a balance and can play defensively too. He passes very well, has a good shot and is a complete player.”
In his last two european outings against FC Basle and Otlelu Galati, Carrick has been one of United’s stand out performers. Just his look then that the rest of his team forgot to turn up in both games, with him scuffing a shot away to the Romanians that overshadowed all of his good work in the minds of the boo-boys.
Playing higher up the pitch he took a more active role in dictating United’s play. He was assertive, positive and proactive; a world away from his usual characterisation as the panicked, pass back merchant. Such a stereotype hasn’t exactly been issued without some merit however. Carrick is undoubtably a confidence player, and in recent seasons his form has slipped as his self-doubts have flared. As he retreated within himself, his initiative to look for a constructive forward pass evaporated, ushering in a cold, brittle conservatism to his game. The myth of Michael Carrick the sullen midfield nonentity was born. From then on in, in matches such as Tuesday’s draw with Otelul, a positive overall Michael Carrick performance would forever be dismissed by even the most singular of mistakes or mishits.
The ex-Spurs man’s lack of agility and aggression has also marked him out as a prime scapegoat candidate within United’s midfield set-ups of late. For fans still day-dreaming of Paul Ince, Roy Keane and Bryan Robson, Carrick just doesn’t possess that same lip-smacking vigor or appetite to utterly dominate the midfield war at the centre of the pitch. He looks like an anomaly to fans who hold onto their own expectations for players charged with covering a back four. They ask, if he isn’t a battling destroyer, a creative play-maker or a box-to-box matchwinner, what the hell is he, and what is he good for?!
Carrick lacks the tenacity, invention or engine to perform any of those respective roles. He is instead a technician; retaining possession, redistributing the ball and sweeping through the between the defense and midfield lines. When possession is lost he functions as an interceptor; anticipating the opponent’s intentions and plays, assuming the correct positioning and taking control of the ball without the need for an over physical challenges.
It is telling that in almost every game he plays his name finishes high up the stat tables in terms of total distance covered, passing accuracy and successful interceptions. When played well, it is a role hardly noticeable because it is wholly unglamorous, but it is a job that requires a solid, unfussy technique, awareness and positional maturity. Whilst it is easy to dismiss him and his contributions to United’s success, there are few players with his array of skills and placid, selfless temperament to undertake such tasks. Carrick does the dog work so that his team mates don’t have to.