19 May ~ There is probably no more overused yet accurate adjective to describe a player in the past couple of years than "languid" when applied to Dimitar Berbatov. A euphemism if there ever was one, meant to denote that the Manchester United forward is too lazy for the swift attacking moves that have helped define the kind of football played by the top clubs in the Premier League. Although one would be hard pressed to name a more silky and sophisticated footballer playing in the top flight, many fans and pundits believe his on-the-ball pondering slows United down at the wrong moments and on the wrong parts of the pitch. A gilded anchor on a speedboat.
Berbatov has recently responded by retiring from international football to focus on remaining competitive for a place in United's first team. And though this gesture is admirable, and probably what most Man Utd fans expect from their top-paid players, I don't get the sense that Berbatov's problems had as much to do with form as they did with where he fits in the system. He is a stylistic anomaly in a team that in its modern form was exemplified by the attacking trident of Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, and Wayne Rooney, whom for all their technical brilliance were ruthlessly deliberate in their attacking moves. Berbatov could be in the form of his life and would still make United a worse team than if a livewire like David Silva were included in his place. Whereas United's style of play would flatter Silva's talents, they almost spite Berbatov's. Like Berbatov, the same could said about Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Barcelona.
Ibrahimovic was consciously brought in to add a more muscular dimension to a side, who despite their trophy hogging exploits last year were derided as a one-dimensional team. This was a somewhat curious move considering Barcelona's attackers are meant to defend from the front with vigour, and defenders are expected to join in on the attack regularly, with a strict adherence to a 4-3-3 formation. Barça's personnel are intimately aware of the kinds of players that are able to make such a system work. Xavi recently said that Cesc Fabregas is "a footballer with Barcelona's DNA", while Lionel Messi less romantically, but no less tellingly, said that David Villa would be a great fit at Barcelona. While these musings are more likely motivated by enticing players to join them in the close season (Villa has just moved to the Camp Nou for £34.2 million), it stands that as a club Barcelona self-consciously develop and recruit players in terms of how they fit the system, a stark contrast to Real Madrid's "buy the prom king" policy.
Pep Guardiola's once unassailable judgment was questioned for bringing in Ibrahimovic, a player considered a big game bottler. This isn't quite fair. While Ibra did, in a sense, bottle it against his former club Inter Milan, he scored key goals in very big games against Real Madrid, Stuttgart, and two against Arsenal earlier in the season. And yet he has just about failed his first, and probably only, season at Barcelona. Like Berbatov, Ibrahimovic suffers in a system not suited to his abilities, while his club, in turn, suffers from his presence on the pitch. Barcelona so often mesmerise because they play as if from memory, each pass and movement into space an automatic expression of a pattern created on the training ground the week prior to the match. Not Zlatan. When he receives the ball you can see him thinking, straining to remember the moves, or contemplating ditching the script altogether while the moment passes. For all his balletic and brillant abilities, Ibra made Barça a slower proposition, and therefore easier to defend against.
If there is anything that can be learned from Guardiola's record-breaking first year in charge at Barcelona, and an astonishing second season despite going out in the semi-finals of the Champions League, it's that the young coach is no tactical slouch. And yet it's possible that he was obsessed with paying for the best Plan B money could buy in Ibrahimovic. What he didn't count on was this very expensive Plan B getting in the way of Plan A. Sam Fayyaz