The real deal or simply serving a purpose at Old Trafford?

Tom Cleverley Manchester United

Manchester United have always had at their disposal a flurry of youth players, produced readily on a conveyor belt of young talent, but perhaps where Sir Alex Ferguson has been more successful, in comparison to his counterparts at Chelsea and Manchester City, has been his ability to successfully integrate his hot prospects, bursting with potential, into the first team at Old Trafford despite the club putting enormous pressure upon itself for success and results, with little room for a ‘transition season’.

Ferguson’s trick during his reign as United boss has been to balance out his well paid stars, full of quality and with a proven track record, against hungry and eager youth products. The system works on the simple notion that there will always be competition for places, but furthermore, should a first team star dip in form, the Scottish manager can put in a younger player, safe in the knowledge that he will work his socks off to keep his place in the team next week. Similarly, as soon as a youngster inevitably comes off the boil, as consistency in one’s game tends to be found during their peak years, the senior alternative can step back in with his proven quality, and this time make more of his opportunities.

This season, the Red Devils’ youngsters have provided an integral role at the club. While the likes of Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Danny Welbeck have provided adequate cover, and even performed big roles in the Champions League, David De Gea, Rafael and Tom Cleverley have been privy to a regular slot in the first team.

Yet, it is the England midfielder whom I most have my reservations about. While Rafael and David De Gea’s presence in the starting XI has been based solely on merit, I cannot say the same for Cleverley, despite him also claiming a place as a regular starter in the Three Lions set up.

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It’s almost as if his ascension from a Wigan loanee to a United regular has been widely accepted, without anyone challenging how or why, or whether he even deserves to be there. His two goals and single assist in 18 Premier League appearances leaves a lot to be desired, yet you’re about as likely to hear an English commentator, TV pundit, journalist or football talking head speak out against the hypocrisy of British democracy having a Queen as head of state as you are against the form or performances of the 23-year-old.

Since last summer, Cleverley has made nine appearances out of a possible nine games for England since his debut against Italy in August 2012. In some matches, Roy Hodgson has given the youngster a pivotal role at the tip of the Three Lions midfield, and in others he’s used him as a wide midfielder. But in either position, I am yet to witness the United man to have any considerable influence on a match. He may well do a string of decent, if very simple passes, and he is an incredibly hard worker, but in terms of controlling the game, in a manner in which you’d expect a passing midfielder to, Cleverley has come up rather short on international duty.

Is there something I am missing that others can easily see? Through my eyes, a man who is expected to be the next Paul Scholes looks more and more like a modern day Nicky Butt. It’s almost as if his presence alone in the United starting XI is evidence enough of his abilities, and when combined with his age, the assumption is made that he’s a decent youngster with a bright future ahead of him. Judging Cleverley on his own, the generalised sweeping opinion is understandable, but compare him to a counterpart, Jack Wilshere for example, and the gulf in class is easy to see.

Wilshere, despite being two years younger than Cleverley, is controlling games, providing that priceless youthful dynamism in the middle of the park, and proactively contributing to his side’s performances for club and country. Of course, I have no doubt that the Arsenal man is an exceptional talent for his age, or for that matter any age, but I would claim he is already twice, five times or ten times the player that Cleverley will ever amount to be.

I have already lost my faith with those who are given the task in one form or another of scrutinising the English game. From commentary faux pas such as Andy Townsend telling Manchester United to ‘target’ the incredibly capable Diego Alves during their Champions League clash against Real Madrid, whom performed out of his skin at Old Trafford, to Ray Wilkins discussing on Sky Sports News that he had no idea who PSG goalkeeper, Salvatore Sirigu, was and they therefore needed to buy a new one,  it’s safe to say that any real analytical, factual and technical approach to criticising modern football is a rarity.

But surely, Sir Alex Ferguson, the most successful manager in the history of the Premier League, must have a clearer and better informed view of things. Does he really rate the England midfielder or is he in the team purely out of necessity?

I’d argue it’s almost certainly the latter. Cleverly has that natural athleticism a 23-year-old possesses, to counteract ageing veterans Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes’ lack of physicality, and his simple passing game allows for his fellow midfielders to take control of the match, without impeding on their integral duties to the United game plan. Similarly, his defensive work rate is an admirable characteristic, but is that really what should be praised in an attacking midfielder? I can’t help but thinking he’s played regularly due to a lack of a better alternative, and Sir Alex’s inability to bring in a central midfielder over the past few years has been well documented, having recently failed to sign John Obi Mikel, Moussa Dembele and Wesley Sneijder.

It’s time English football fans started seeing things from a different perspective. Because Cleverley serves a purpose at Old Trafford, and provides an athletic alternative to the likes of Scholes, Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Anderson, it is commonly assumed that his future will be bright and promising and world-conquering, and that assumption is yet to be formally challenged by anyone in the English media.

But if anything, the reverse is true; He may well be talented for a 23-year-old, and there are several positives to his game, but he will not still be at Old Trafford when he’s 37. For that matter, I highly doubt he will be still on the books at United when he’s 30, and I wouldn’t make a bet on him still being with the club when he’s 27, and quite frankly, he doesn’t deserve to be at a title winning club during his peak years. And as far as his involvement in the England team, I can understand if he were selected as a squad player, considering England are in short supply of young, top flight midfielders, but his role in the first team should be severely diminished.

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