Manchester United became the champions of Europe and England last season, despite being light in numbers up front. Tevez and Rooney were the star duo leading the line, with Ronaldo banging in the goals from midfield. This season they have added Berbatov to their squad, giving Sir Alex a head ache about who plays, and who warms the bench.
Squad rotation is a fact of life for successful teams in modern football. Bigger squads are needed to cope with longer seasons, more games, and higher intensity. There are though varying degrees of success when it comes to this rotation policy. Rafa Benitez at Liverpool is a huge supporter of the policy and employed it with success during two La Liga winning seasons with Valencia. However there is a feeling that he changes the team a bit too much week in and week out and this is why Liverpool have been great in patches, and poor in others. Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex have done it better.
In United’s best ever season, the 99 Treble winning season, they had four quality strikers to choose from, Cole, Yorke, Sheringham and Solskjaer. They all played prominent parts in the season, ending with both Sheringham and Ole coming off the bench to score and win the Champions League final against Bayern. However, while they four were rotated and used to maximum effect that season, there was still a first choice partnership of Cole and Yorke. So who is Sir Alex’s first choice this season?
Since his arrival on dead line day Berbatov has started in all but one of United’s games. Tevez has been the unlucky one sitting on the bench, with Sir Alex clearly showing the Rooney will start whenever fit, be it up front, or in a wider role. Berbatov is a quality player, and everyone knows that he has a air of class about him, but his performances for United have been poor. Yet Sir Alex’s persistence in picking him suggests that he feels he is lacking in fitness rather than he is his preferred starter. Berbatov, because of his situation at Spurs, arrived at United well behind the squad in terms of fitness. By picking him week in week out at the begining of his United career Sir Alex is ensuring that he gets match fitness quickly, and that his team mates learn about him, and he about them. Coming the busy Christmas period we can be assured that the rotation policy will be in full flow.
Berbatov also needs to learn what it is to be a United player. Right now he is not one. When Rooney or Tevez lose the ball they don’t do a Berbatov, look up to the sky, or down at his feet, and then go for a little walk, they track back and make sure they get it back. It’s not unusual to see Tevez or Rooney filling in at right back when United are defending. You’re unlikely to see Berbatov in his own half much. When United are defending they do so with 11 men. Right now with Berbatov they are doing so with 10. What he needs to learn is that although he is the focal point of the attack he needs to put in the hard work when United don’t have the ball. They fluency of the attack means that at any time Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo, Giggs, Nani, and even Fletcher, are the furthest man forward, occupying the central strikers role. This means that when the forward drops back to regain possession, there will always be someone covering up front. The option is not lost. So Berbatov doesn’t have to lazily walk around, put can and should put in more work. There are few harder working footballers in the game than Tevez and he has been very unlucky to have to miss out while Berbatov gets used to United.
There is no denying that Berbatov is class and will be a great signing for United, but he needs to learn fast, because a player like Tevez is being wasted on the bench week in and week out. He needs to be playing more – for the good of United. There will be times when Sir Alex will play all three, put most games he will employ a horses for courses approach, with the team being chosen for specific opposition and tactics. The sooner Tevez gets back in the starting eleven the better though.