How will six fit into two?

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By James Johnson

It seems like a strange idea that the joint top scorer in the Premier League last season isn’t likely to be first choice for his club this season. However that is exactly what is on the cards for Dimitar Berbatov.

Berbatov is one player who can seemingly split the opinions of Manchester United’s fans right down the middle. For every thought that his first touch is sublime there is an opposing opinion that he is lazy. For anyone using the simple stat that he scored 20 league goals in his defence, the fact that he scored them goals in a handful of games is used as a stick to beat him with.

One major problem standing in Berbatov’s way of a first team slot is Javier Hernandez. Nobody imagined the impact the Mexican striker would have last season, not just in terms of the amount of goals he scored but the unleashing of Wayne Rooney from the shackles of rejected contracts, rumours of moves to Manchester City, his well documented personal problems and months of poor performances. Hernandez gave the team something new to their attacking arsenal, his playing on the shoulder of the last defender and defence splitting runs created the space and opportunity for Rooney to play in his favoured deeper role and dictate play.

Man United’s best attacking performances arguably came in the second half of the season whilst playing the 4411/442 system that allowed Rooney and Hernandez to combine. As pleasing as this is for everyone connected with the club, it leaves Berbatov at a cross roads. The Bulgarian has a year left on his contract (The club can activate a one year extension clause at any point) and this has given rise to talk of him leaving.

Selling Berbatov makes little or no sense, firstly he has shown no indication that he wants to leave, and that he is happy with the role of third choice striker playing in home games against the mid to lower sides in the league. If he was unhappy about not playing in the big games then this would have come to light already, as bar the Liverpool game at home he hasn’t featured in many big games over the past two seasons. Secondly, a transfer away from the club wouldn’t get United much money, certainly not compared to the fee paid for the player in 2008. The ten million or so that could be raised from selling him would need to be invested into a striker who can get 15-20 goals a season but also be happy not playing every week. Finding that player would surely cost a lot more.

So if Berbatov stays, that leaves Owen, Welbeck and Macheda to fight for one other place on the bench. Going off the past two years it is fair to say that Owen will be used sparingly in Cup competitions and sometimes off the bench in games in which we are chasing a goal (a role that is also suited to Macheda, who has scored two vital goals against Aston Villa over the past few years from the bench). Owen is probably ahead in the pecking order due to experience. If allowed the opportunity, Michael Owen will always score goals, he is simply a natural goal scorer.

The perceived idea of sending someone out on loan is to give them game time in a competitive environment and to evaluate if they are good enough for their parent team. Welbeck in his time at Sunderland started slowly but he came to the fore when switched to a more central position. With this in mind surely he is deserving of a chance to prove his worth to United by getting game time in the league and Europe if the chance occurs. Welbeck has clearly benefited from his spell away from Old Trafford, but the same cannot be said of Macheda and Diouf, on the field at least, though the young Italian may have gained a reality check experiencing life away from United.

Whereas last season some thought the options were a tad light up front in the case on an injury or two, this coming season sees almost too many players to choose from. Mame Diouf is rumoured to be leaving the club which leaves six strikers fighting for a place in the team. Rooney, Hernandez and Berbatov are likely to be rotated in one way or other and Sir Alex has said that Owen will get more chances than previously, which leaves Macheda and Welbeck.

The forthcoming season is unlikely to be make or break for the talented youngsters, both have different qualities that if honed could see them both have a future. What is the solution to ensure both players continue to develop at the correct rate? Remain at the club featuring in the Carling Cup, the odd league game and perhaps the early stages of the Champions League? Or a loan move to a Premier League club where they are likely to play regular football?

From the club’s point of view the answer is obvious; loan moves will reduce the pool of forwards at Alex Ferguson’s disposal and consequently reduce future selection headaches.

How six fit into two.

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