Fulham's Reliance On Dimitar Berbatov Is Their Major Weakness

It goes without saying that the Bulgarian is a class act, but making him the focal point of the Fulham attack is a plan with significant drawbacks...
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It goes without saying that the Bulgarian is a class act, but making him the focal point of the Fulham attack is a plan with significant drawbacks...

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“Keep calm and pass me the ball” was the message inscribed across former Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov's thermal wear when he netted the opener during Fulham's 1-1 draw with Southampton on Boxing Day. The classy forward has become a mainstay in the Cottagers side after being reunited with manager Martin Jol in the summer, but the message on his shirt may not have been the best advice: by sending so much of their play through Berbatov, Fulham have made themselves a predictable and often beaten outfit.

Jol worked with the front-man during their time together at Spurs, before the current Fulham boss was sacked and the two maintain a splendid working relationship. After a mixed spell under the Spaniard, Berbatov left White Hart Lane for Old Trafford, where he was expected to take his game to the next level and lead the club to further glory. Of course, it didn't work out quite like that.

While he impressed sporadically, he started just 26 of their 68 “high profile” games and failed to score in the Champions League knock-out stages during his four years in the club. A summer exit was all but confirmed following the arrival of Robin van Persie.

A return to Spurs was mooted, not to mention his well publicised failure to turn up in Florence ahead of a medical with Fiorentina, but Fulham was where Berbatov ended up. “If I feel the coach is trusting my ability," he said shortly after signing, "then I can do special things on the pitch.” This is undoubtedly true.

If Berbatov failed to live up to expectations set of him with United, it was as a result of the system Sir Alex Ferguson employed, raising questions over whether the Scot fully believed in his record purchase. For whatever reason, United fans were denied the best of the Bulgarian.

However, under Jol the striker was ready to rekindle his somewhat stuttering career. Both at White Hart Lane and at Craven Cottage, the Dutchman all but built his team around Berbatov and you can't exactly blame him.

The striker was vital in Spurs' attack, bringing others into play and slowing the game down to his pace, much like Zinedine Zidane in his pomp. Securing a fifth-placed finish during his debut year in north London, many had tipped the club to push on and reach the top four, prior to Jol's sacking and Ramos' reign of terror.

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It wasn't to be for Spurs, however, but the necessity to make him the focal point of the team was part of the reason for his success at the club. It was no surprise, in that case, to see something similar done at Craven Cottage this season.

Many will argue that a footballer of his ability, despite his often lacklustre attitude, deserves to be the key player in any team, regardless of the calibre of those around him. This is untrue. Placing an individual on such a pedestal makes tactics predictable and, if the player has an off day - and Berbatov certainly has those - it can see the chances of victory plummet.

Fulham are definitely a better side with him in the side: Berbatov's goals for the club have accounted for an extra five points this season. It could be argued that without him, the Cottagers would be level on points with Aston Villa in 18th place and two below Reading, against whom the 31-year-old netted in the 3-3 draw at the Madejski Stadium back in October.

On top of that, looking at the four games he's missed for Fulham, be it through injury or before he moved to Craven Cottage, the club have picked up four points from a possible 12, although his debut came at half time in 3-0 loss on his away to West Ham United.

The problem for Fulham is that with a single stand-out star player, their play is predictable and teams of Premier League quality can prepare for this in advance and meet Fulham with a specifically-tailored game-plan. The stats don't lie: Berbatov is Fulham's most tackled player, being dispossessed on average 2.4 times per game - only Bryan Ruiz's figure of 2 comes close to that tally. The Bulgarian also concedes more turnovers than any other Fulham player, with 1.7 per game.

These figures are not evidence that Berbatov is a bad player: he also takes more shots, makes more passes and creates more chances than any of his team-mates. The point is simply that their attack should be more varied at this level. Their recent run of bad form only serves to prove this point.