Breaking in to any team at a young age is difficult, never mind at Manchester United. Tom Cleverley’s versatility, while it may have originally been the most attractive aspect about him as a player, may only serve to hold him back from realising his full potential as he grows older, in what is the archetypal catch-22 situation for all footballers breaking through these days it seems.
The main thing to take away from Cleverley’s ascension in recent times to become a key squad player for both club and country. Aside from his penchant for the treatment table, is that he’s really not all that young anymore the more you think about it and 23 is no longer considered ‘young’ in the game.
After all, he’s six years older than Liverpool winger Raheem Sterling, which is the same age difference between Wayne Rooney and Rio Ferdinand; two players I think most of would agree came from different generations in terms of the crop that they emerged with.
Of course, after spending two full seasons out on loan during impressive spells at Watford and then Wigan, this was what was needed to mould him into the player that he’s eventually become and it has to be said that along with Danny Welbeck, that United have utilised the loan market exceptionally well in recent times for players they have wanted to blood into the first-team.
Cleverley, much like Welbeck, was always regarded as a talented youngster but talent alone simply isn’t enough to guarantee you a squad place at Old Trafford and many a player has slipped through the trap door and into journeying careers in the lower leagues as a result. In all honesty, Cleverley is a late bloomer and nobody really expected him to make an impact at the club, at least not in the way he has done, but there’s a sense that he could drift in terms of his development precisely at a time when he needs to kick on unless he’s given a settled and clearly defined role in the side.
Some players manage to carve out careers for themselves as jack of all trades sort of player, with Phil Neville and John O’Shea, both originally from Manchester United coincidentally, standing out as prime examples. With Phil Jones looking like another player destined to always be a square peg in a round hole wherever he plays, but they’re few and far between, particularly when it comes to midfield players.
The trouble is that despite many criticising the club’s strength in depth in midfield, Ferguson still has a whole host of central options to pick from and the fact that he hasn’t settled on a formation to get the best out of his top-heavy squad could be a mitigating factor. This has seen them switch seamlessly from a 4-4-2 diamond one week to a 4-3-3 the next and while that might be great if you’re a regular, like, say, Robin van Persie or Michael Carrick, it becomes a lot tougher to come in and hit the ground running if you’re not and there’s little time factored in for him to adjust.
In his five international appearances for England to date so far under Roy Hodgson, Cleverley has been used in the hole behind the lone striker, on the left, the right and in the middle of midfield and he often switches between multiple roles within a single match which may go some way to explaining why he can sometimes be seen to drift in and out of the game. He’s the undoubted positional sacrificial lamb.
He looks set to be destined to be a player that’s constantly debated over and knee-jerk reactions will likely haunt him for the rest of his career. There will be those that vociferously appreciate his intricate one-touch passing and ability to unlock doors in the final third, while others will simply state that he disappears for long periods and that they don’t ‘get’ him. In terms of what he can do, he’s not a very ‘English’ type of player and he’d likely be lauded for his work-rate if you saw him recklessly flying into tackle every five minutes, except his positional awareness and ability to mark space means he doesn’t ever have to.
While the arrival of van Persie has shown itself to be little more than an indulgence purchase, albeit a pretty darn good one at that, the real spanner in the works in terms of the team’s system is how Ferguson uses both Shinji Kagawa and Rooney together while also sticking to his well-worn footballing principles of playing two wingers out wide on either flank. This will inevitably have a knock-on effect on the middle of midfield.
It’s been pondered by many that Ferguson has long since given up on trying to solve the midfield problems inherent in his side ever since Roy Keane left and Owen Hargreaves become crocked. It lacks balance and each combination he plays is flawed, leaving him open to criticism from the fans over a lack of investment in a key area. However, with the sheer amount of attacking talent he has at his disposal, it more than makes up for anything that is lacking, even if it is continually having to bail them out so far this term.
In that regard, it would be a shame if Cleverley was never given a prolonged run while he is free from injury in a more central area where he can at least try to dictate play in a way that Carrick and Scholes often can while playing together. The extent to which the club still relies on both Scholes and Giggs given their ages and the amount of time that Ferguson has had to find suitable replacements for them is beyond embarrassing now.
For all intents and purposes, Ferguson may have given up on trying to control the middle of midfield these days, seemingly content to try and out-score his opponents each week after coming up short on two occasions trying to combat the famed Barcelona ‘carousel’ as he seeks a silverware-tinged swansong to his glittering managerial career.
Moreover, it would be a monumental waste if Cleverley became a casualty of that short-term policy, not only for his club, but for a national team short on composed ball-playing talent as he continues to be shunted from pillar to post around the pitch in search of an identity and a role he can call his own.
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