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A case for Dimitar Berbatov to start versus Everton FC

Well hello there (for possibly the last time)
Well hello there (for possibly the last time)
I've recently stopped doing the sort of posts where I share the starting XI and tactics that I desire ahead of a Manchester United match because manager Sir Alex Ferguson has mostly settled on a first-choice XI. The chosen personnel and possession-based approach has suited the club well for the run-in and without the midweek 'distraction' of European football, the need for rotation has been less. When everyone has been fit, the selection choices have been obvious with the only dilemma being Danny Welbeck or Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) to partner Wayne Rooney up front.

The biggest reason it's been somewhat back-and-forth between Welbeck or Chicharito is because both youngsters have shown inconsistent form lately as neither has grabbed hold of that starting spot. Welbeck's all-around game, where he drops deep to link play and where his movement helps drag defenders, is of tremendous benefit but even his biggest fans would admit that he needs to be more clinical in front of goal. Chicharito is typically a ruthless finisher but he's failed to put away his chances in recent weeks. The Mexican international's all-around game is lacking at this point in his career so if he's not bagging goals, he's somewhat useless to United. For the upcoming tie versus Everton on Sunday, I have a suggestion that is very unlikely to happen -- forget Welbeck or Chicharito and start Dimitar Berbatov alongside Wazza.

I mentioned my worry about United not possibly being able to adequately cope with the Toffees aerial threat during set-pieces in both our scouting report for Everton and in our match preview. It's not so much our 'ability', but rather a lack of numbers in marking the numerous aerial threats for the Toffees. Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans will likely mark Marouane Fellaini and Tim Cahill while Michael Carrick can pick up Nikica Jelavic. However, we start to run out of adequate defenders when there is consideration for Everton's two central-defenders getting forward in these set-piece scenarios.

Perhaps Chris Smalling or Phil Jones can feature at right-back in order to add another adequate aerial defender. However, Rafael's ability in the attacking half of the pitch is likely to be key in this match as United will control possession against an expected deep-defending Everton side. If their wide left attacker -- anticipated to be Steven Pienaar -- is instructed to drop deep so that he can double up on Antonio Valencia, then United's right-back will be an important player in attack as he'll have acres of space to get forward into. Bringing Berbatov into the side helps address this lack of numbers issue on set-pieces as the Bulgarian's aerial ability (61.5% aerial duels won) is a big improvement in comparison to Welbeck (29.0%) and Chicharito (26.7%). Johnny Heitinga has been preferred as of late to Phil Jagielka but the former is weaker in the air (45.9%) when compared to the latter (76.3%). While Berbatov could pick up Sylvain Distin (68.1%), Rooney perhaps could mark Heitinga and suddenly United would seemingly have adequate cover.

* All percentages in the above paragraph are only in regards to aerial duel won percentage for the 2011/12 Premier League season.

Rooney is another factor in why I feel it might be worth giving Berbatov the start. It's a funny thing with the perception our talisman's form because it was during the middle of the 2010-11 season -- just after his disastrous Word Cup summer and after his controversial contract situation in the fall -- when he began to find his form but no one noticed because he wasn't bagging goals like he had during the 2009-10 campaign. This new version of Rooney had evolved from a 'false 9' -- a lead frontman who likes to drop deep at times -- to more a true 'number 10' -- a player that roams between the lines behind a lead frontman. He was influencing matches by creating chances for others while also contributing the occasional goal. It just took a few months for lagging observers to figure this out.

Rooney's role this season has been somewhat of a hybrid between his 2009/10 'false 9' role and his 2010/11 'number 10' role. Overall, he's been superb this season but as of late, his influence has waned. His touch has been relatively poor and he's sputtered numerous attacks when he's received the ball between the lines with poor decision-making and wayward passing. However, he's still bagging goals.

Perhaps Berbatov can take over the duties of dropping deep to link play. Welbeck does this well, but Berba's passing range is superior as the Bulgarian's incisiveness and imagination allows him to create chances for his striker partner or for the wide attackers -- and even for Paul Scholes when the midfield maestro gets forward for his trademark late-arriving runs. This could free up Rooney to play higher so that he could concentrate solely on doing what he's still doing very well -- finishing his chances. This would be reminiscent of their partnership from a few seasons ago when United would be deployed in a 4-4-2 shape in league. Furthermore, the value of Rooney's willingness to drop deep and defend is minimized for Sunday's match because Everton's version of their 4-4-1-1 system doesn't feature an influential deep-lying playmaker. Berba brings a different sort of all-around game and also finishing ability that arguably isn't much of a drop-off from Chicharito's -- especially when considering recent form for the Mexican.

As previously mentioned, Everton is expected to defend deep at Old Trafford. David Moyes is very much a reactive manager and his reaction to his best attacking player -- Leighton Baines -- being unavailable due to a hamstring injury will likely result in their attacki being mostly hamstrung (*). Moyes may be looking to play for an ugly 0-0 draw or nick a fortunate 0-1 victory -- perhaps from a set-piece. Therefore, United's wide players will be key against a structured side because they'll need to stretch Everton's defense by providing width. This means crosses. And as already pointed out in this piece, Berba is the most likely candidate out of United's forwards to bag a goal from a header.

(*) Anyone notice what I just did there?!

Who knows what kind of form the Bulgarian is in because as far as I know, he's been spending his time smoking cigarettes while showing the ladies his Berbarotica. I nearly forgot he was on the team until his recent cameo appearance versus Aston Villa. Berba is likely out the door this summer but I think the sublime striker could provide one last bit of magic for the Old Trafford faithful on Sunday. Everton being the opponents provides nearly the perfect stage for a final act at the Theatre of Dreams.