It’s hard to think of a player whose sheer presence in the England fold has infuriated the public more than Tom Cleverley.Seemingly holding a place in the Manchester United and Three Lions first teams upon the promise of great potential alone – despite a lack of evidence to actually suggest this – the 24 year-old famously became the victim of a petition signed by over 10,000 England fans to ban him from the 2014 World Cup.
Roy Hodgson publicly condemned the petition, but influenced by it or not, eventually came to the same conclusion and left Cleverley out of his World Cup squad – incredibly telling of his surprising demise from a few campaigns previous, where Cleverley was drawing parallels with Paul Scholes.
And thus, as Louis van Gaal plans a summer of wholesale changes at Old Trafford, many assume that the Red Devils midfielder will eventually be culled. It’s no secret that central midfield is the prime department for considerable reinvestment at Carrington, with United already claiming the signature of Ander Herrera and also targeting Serie A stars Arturo Vidal and Kevin Strootman. Room needs to be made for new recruits and new ways of thinking – over the last 18 months, Cleverley has made himself more than expendable.
The England international however, holds a rather different opinion, as he recently revealed to the Daily Mail; “I watched the manager’s Holland team in the World Cup and from that I think I’m going to be his type of player. I think there’s a place for me but I have to prove it.”
As much as Cleverley’s lukewarm displays over the past eighteen months, unjustifying of a place in the England set-up, have angered me as much as everyone – I remember exploding into a harmony of expletives last season after witnessing him cautiously venture within ten yards of the opponent’s penalty box unchallenged only to turn around and pass the ball to Phil Jones at right-back – I feel the United midfielder may have a point. Could Louis van Gaal be the revival of Manchester United’s much-maligned midfielder?
If two trademarks of van Gaal’s United side are to emerge in the foreseeable future , they will unquestionably be attacking football and a belief in young players – especially technical ones.
We witnessed as much during the Netherlands’ semi-final-reaching World Cup campaign, where Memphis Depay, Jordy Clasie, Bruno Martins Indi, Georginio Wijnaldum and Stefan de Vrij, none being older than the age of 24, particularly impressed with their technical qualities and tactical understanding. And is now fabled throughout the annals of Champions League history, the United boss once claimed the European title with an Ajax side whose average squad age was remarkably just 23.
In that regard, Cleverley fits the bill perfectly. For all the disputes surrounding the midfielder’s quality, his technical consistency is not one of them – a pass success rate of 90% from last season, despite United’s many woes in the middle of the park, speaks for itself.
Likewise, Cleverley is of optimum age from van Gaal’s pespective, his quality somewhat established but his potential a long way off full realisation. Players such as this – young, impressionable and determined to impact – can be moulded quicker and to a more clinical definition than their older counterparts; in a nutshell, they tend to buy into van Gaal’s absorbing personality, and thus his ideas, at a considerably faster rate.
That being said, an average of just 0.5 key passes per match last term, resulting in just eleven throughout his 22 Premier League appearances, suggests he’s still a long way shy of the Cleverley that was once tipped to become the rightful successor to Paul Scholes. If van Gaal is to turn the midfielder’s career around from the brink of mediocrity, he will have to make up for lost time; right now, he closer resembles Manchester United’s next Anderson – a bit part player whose presence is only justified by a lack of protest over that role and scarce viable alternatives.
But there must be something in Tom Cleverley, even if it hasn’t been on show for the last year or so. After all, Sir Alex Ferguson has never been a man to suffer fools gladly, and Everton’s Roberto Martinez, widely heralded as one of the best managers in the Premier League, has publicly stated his adoration for the midfielder on numerous occasions.
Van Gaal appears to feel it too, whatever that positive feeling surrounding Cleverley might be. He issued the 24 year-old the captain’s armband during United’s 3-2 victory over Roma on their pre-season tour of the USA, and perhaps most tellingly of all, elected him as the only player to remain on the pitch for a full 90 minutes. With Michael Carrick now ruled out for the next twelve weeks after picking up an ankle injury, although through necessity rather than design, the England international will likely be given further opportunities to impress over the next few months.
It’s amazing what confidence can do to a player, and van Gaal appears to be placing his in Tom Cleverley. That could all change with a major signing, or after a streak of performances that repeat the poor form from last season. But young, energetic, hungry and naturally gifted, there is no doubt that the Manchester United midfielder is very much a Louis van Gaal player. Whether that will result in a revival of his now lukewarm career however, remains to be seen.