To celebrate 30 years of the Premier League, Athleticism pays tribute to the 50 greatest individual performances in its history, as voted on by our writers. You can read Oliver Kay’s introduction to our Golden Games series (and selection rules) here – along with the full list of all the articles as they unfold.
Choosing 50 out of 309,949 options is an impossible task. You might not agree with their choices, you will not agree with the order. They did not do it. This is not a definitive list. It’s a little fun, but I hope you have a little fun by August.
Look, I’m obviously going to get into your goals. I’m going to explain to you how rare it is for a player to score five times in a single Premier League game. We can laugh at how you turned Blackburn Rovers defenders into weird, uncomfortable shapes, and maybe take a moment to wonder why your partnership with Wayne Rooney – so fascinating here – never really broke out. All in good time.
But first, a confession: I found the whole thing rather shocking. Maybe even a little unpleasant. And I think you do too.
He was there in the celebrations. In fairness, your default mode at Manchester United has rarely strayed far from being ‘terminally shy’, but that night at Old Trafford you looked actively embarrassed by it all.
Your game was all about style and grace – notes of ethereal beauty against the deafening storm and blood of English football. You were a dreamer, a rebel, an anachronism. Sir Alex Ferguson thought you had “a touch of genius” about you and always seemed annoyed by his own failure to take full advantage of it. You were a walking enigma – very walking.
Against Blackburn, however? You were playing against type. Berbatov the looter. The first goal was a tap-in. The second was a complete gift. You desperately tried not to score the fourth at all and it was the same with the fifth. “It was like the ball was looking for me,” you said recently, as if abdicating responsibility for what happened.
It was, by all accounts, a memorable performance. Your sequence play was exceptional, your third goal a true masterpiece. You scored five times, for God’s sake. It’s on this list for a reason.
It just wasn’t very…you.
OK, those other members of the five-goal club: Andy Cole, Alan Shearer, Jermain Defoe, Sergio Aguero. Each of them blesses cursed with a one-way mind. Alarm clock, bowl of goals for breakfast, nice mug of hot goals, short drive to Goalsville, day spent selling goals at the local dealer, drive home for a quick game of goals with the kids, bottle of French goals in the fridge, pretty. Repeat until retirement or death.
You were different.
It’s not that you weren’t an expert finisher. Your highlight reel speaks for itself, demonstrating not only your technique, but also your problem-solving spirit. You scored strange goals, conjured them out of thin air. Take this whim against Liverpool, months before the Blackburn game. It was a thing of such an outrageous mind that the only reasonable response was laughter.
But the people who loved you — hi! – didn’t like you for your killer instincts. No, you were there to speed up the heart, to make the world a little more magical. Your mind-blowing assist for Cristiano Ronaldo against West Ham United, the pirouette goal for Tottenham Hotspur against Charlton Athletic, that first touch of superglue under a high ball when you were playing for Fulham… these stick in the memory far more than anyone else. what a brutal goal tally could.
So let’s ignore the number five for a second, forget the tap-ins, and look at the bigger picture. You didn’t just stick the knife in Blackburn; you played with them first.
Your link-up play with Rooney was superb from the first whistle. At one point you played SEVEN consecutive passes between you, going from the halfway line to the edge of Blackburn’s area, which was weird and hilarious. Wearing matching (and objectively quite ugly) red underwear, you’ve been through a repertoire of classic #9/#10 combinations, dragging Christopher Samba and Ryan Nelson so far out of their comfort zone that they might as well have wear drag.
United were at their best – it wasn’t so much a win as a smash – and while Rooney, Nani and Park-Ji Sung were all full of energy, you were a man on the cruise. Short films, first touches, all at your own pace.
Just before half-time, you launched into a labyrinthine slow-motion dribble that confused Michel Salgado so much that he just tackled you at rugby. Somehow the referee decided not to give a penalty. You were absolutely livid.
Hahaha, just kidding! You looked mildly amused and largely indifferent. Like always. Just as the Berbaheads liked it.
I called Rene Meulensteen, Manchester United’s first-team manager during your time at the club, to talk about you. That’s what he said. I think you will like it:
“He wasn’t really a footballer; he was an artist who wore football boots,” he said. “He always wanted to express a certain beauty on the pitch. He had a real fluidity in his game, which made everything so easy. Everything was done with grace.
“He was a bit different. Calm. He didn’t lack confidence, but sometimes he struggled when things weren’t going in games. I remember a conversation we had once on the pitch. training. He said, ‘René, you have to tell the other players to do this and that.’ We sat on the cooler. I asked him, ‘Berba, do you like music?’ looked like I was from another planet, but said yes.
“I said, ‘If you could be the best musician in the world, what instrument would you play?’ He chose the piano. I said, ‘OK, imagine you’re the best pianist in the world. Wherever you go, the concert hall is full. Everyone wants to come and listen to you because you have a unique style. But do you see those players over there on the other side of the pitch?
“’It’s the best orchestra in the world. It’s the best orchestra and they have a unique style of playing. They have a conductor who has worked very hard to make this orchestra play a certain way. The only difference is that they play in a different style and pace than you.
“’They asked the best pianist in the world to come and play in their orchestra. Now you can do two things: ask the orchestra to play in your style, your melody, your tempo; Where you could play at their own pace, add something to the orchestra and make it even better. Do you know what you mean?’. He said, ‘I know exactly what you mean.
“Sometimes he tended to slow down the game, when we used to play at a constant high tempo, breaking lines, falling behind. It was something that sometimes led to a bit of frustration in games. But when it clicked, it really clicked.
“I remember the Blackburn game very well. It showed the variety of goals he could score. Positioning in the area, placing yourself in front of the players, rebounds… but the one that stood out to me was the third, with the little flick and the change of game with the outside of the shoe. That summed up the day. Everything went for him.
Ah yes, the third goal. It was a self-contained wonder and an embodiment of what you were.
Patrice Evra’s laid-back, carefree heeling deep inside you: deeply, deeply cool. (RIP David Dunn. Cause of death: Deception. Gone but not forgotten. Be well, sweet prince.)
The pass from the halfway line to Nani on the right, played with the outside of the boot for no real reason other than you could and knew would look absolutely sensational.
Slow wandering towards the penalty area. “You’re not going to see me blowing on the pitch,” you once said. “There is a saying in Bulgaria: great quality does not require much effort.” This is now my life motto, thank you.
The realization that you could be in business as Nani held the ball and the patience to hang back a bit longer as everyone sprinted towards the six-yard line. Sometimes you have to stand still and let the world change as you please.
The finish, from the side foot, in the roof of the net. The queue of teammates is waiting for you to congratulate you. That shy smile.
And then your comments after the game. “As a striker people tend to only watch the goals you score,” you said. “I’m more concerned with how I play.”
Two things here. A: YES! You couldn’t have produced a more on-brand quote after scoring five times in a game. “I’m more concerned with how I play!” Great stuff. Two: we’re back to the jarring. You weren’t the sort of striker who particularly wanted to be judged on your goalscoring record, so the buzz around you scoring five – especially against a pitiful defense – was probably a little odd. No wonder you said you couldn’t really believe it.
Luckily for us, it still would have been a memorable performance if not for a few tap-ins. It was a game that captured some of your confusing, improvisational brilliance, dispelling – if not permanently – the idea that you and Manchester United were somehow incompatible.
These debates kept you in suspense since your arrival and would never really stop. “Half the people could love me; the other half maybe not,” you once said, which turned out to be quite insightful. There is no account for taste, as they say.
However, there was never any room for doubt when it came to your abilities, and the Blackburn game was an example of that. It proved you could play in the orchestra – and give it some of your raucous charm.
(Design: Sam Richardson for The Athletic. Photo: Getty Images)