To criticise him, it seems, requires nothing more than a pocket thesaurus. Languid. Lackadaisical. Lethargic. And to be honest, to admire him goes against my every instinct.
I’m an admirer of system, of tactics, of the subjection of individual talent to the collective. I am also immersed in a footballing culture where the willing runner is lauded over the technically adept, where the crunching tackle wins a greater roar from the terraces than the perfectly-weighted pass. There is little room in English football for the forward who commits the cardinal sin of “Not Tracking Back”. And yet I find myself unashamedly, occasionally joyfully, a fan of Dimitar Berbatov.
It’s not, as you can imagine, an easy position to maintain. Often, during the hideously protracted heartbreak that has been Berbatov’s spell at Manchester United, I’ve found myself exasperated as I explain for the nth time that he is a genius, as I elaborate in detail (and in vain) why I consider the man generally referred to as “that lazy Bulgarian” to be – whisper it – better than Wayne Rooney.
Perhaps I cannot adequately describe the essence of Berbatov’s appeal, but for me there is a single moment that encapsulates it. It isn’t any of his goals, or even the moment he memorably twisted James Collins inside-out. Instead, cast your mind back to the 2008-2009 season. Manchester United are playing Chelsea. Berbatov, just inside the Chelsea half, receives a pass at shoulder-height. Instead of bringing the ball down, he nonchalantly – even casually – performs an immaculate bicycle-kick, cushioning the ball perfectly into the path of Rooney who, from what five seconds ago was an innocuous situation, is suddenly through on goal.
Remember it? Didn’t think so. Thing is, the player who passes Berbatov the ball was offside – the flag goes up while Dimi is in mid-air. Silence from the commentators. Not a single replay of the incident. One of the most singularly pristine and unexpected displays of technical proficiency I’ve ever seen, and I’ll likely never see it again. And it is precisely because these breathtaking moments are fleeting that they are so captivating.
In an instant he can lift an entire stadium out of their seats, none quite sure what he’s actually done but all knowing that it was brilliant. He plays at such a pace that at times the English game seems to pass him by, yet in fact he has an understanding of tempo – and how to quickly change it – that is rarely seen in the Premier League, endowing him with a mastery of the unexpected.
The elegance, the poise, the guile and craft and beauty is wasted on the turgid functionality of Manchester United and the breakneck tempo of the Premier League. He is simultaneously too good and not good enough for English football. The genius is at once vindicated and undone by its futility. The effortlessly breathtaking is wrapped up in the eternal incompatibility – that is the unique majesty of Dimitar Berbatov.