Manchester United midfielder Tom Cleverley attracted just as much over the top praise as he did needlessly negative criticism for two displays in quick succession for England over the course of the last couple of weeks, but just how good is he?
Firstly, it’s worth remembering that Cleverley isn’t actually all that young anymore, at least not by today’s standards at least, given that he turned 23 last month. Michael Owen was at his peak by that point and has been playing catch up ever since. You also have to factor that he has made just 13 first-team appearances for his club Manchester United over the past year or so, which has been heavily disturbed by injury. This followed off the back of two hugely successful loan spells, firstly with Watford in the Championship and then with Wigan in the top flight, while he also played at Leicester for a while back in 2008-9.
Far too much pressure has been put on him and during his spells at Wigan and Watford, the latter in particular, he played a lot of his football on the right of a four-man midfield. While this versatility has made him a better all-round player, it’s worth drawing attention to the fact that he’s not played all that much football through the middle during his fledgling career to date and is still in the process of learning his craft, at one of the world’s biggest clubs to boot.
To my knowledge at least, too much has was made of his central midfield partnership with Anderson at the beginning of last season; they may have excited the fans in an attacking sense, but they could be got at and they left gaping holes in the middle of the pitch at times for the opposition to exploit. There’s no denying that if it came to a big game in Europe or the Premier League now, that Sir Alex Ferguson would be likely to start with a pairing of Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick instead, simply because they’re more positionally aware, disciplined and keep the ball better.
It seems odd that Cleverley, despite his inexperience, has been deemed such a key player by England boss Roy Hodgson of late, starting the team’s last three games against Italy (friendly), Moldova and Ukraine. However, when you look around at the other options available to him, there’s really not that much else to choose from and you can hardly blame him for selecting what is undoubtedly an exciting talent as the national team continues to wait with baited breath about Jack Wilshere’s return and the effect that his year-long spell out with injury has had on him.
Hodgson didn’t help matters after Cleverley’s performance against Moldova by stating: “I suppose you could say Tom Cleverley is an attacking midfield player – but he’s an attacking midfield player in the same way Cesc Fabregas is. He plays in that position for Manchester United. He is quite capable of coming back into a central midfield role and winning the ball when necessary. Also, he took a bit more responsibility for getting closer to Jermain Defoe and allowing Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard to get on the ball in deeper positions where they are comfortable.”
Now, while the quotes themselves are fairly innocuous, every tabloid ran with a headline along the lines of ‘Hodgson declares Cleverley is England’s answer to Fabregas’ which is quite clearly preposterous off the back of a couple of good performances in a friendly match and against an international minnow. His display against Moldova wasn’t as special as everyone made it out to be, nor was he as bad against Ukraine as his detractors suggested. Inconsistency like this is to be expected early on in his career and while playing for an inherently inconsistent side like England always prove to be.
As far as I can tell, Cleverley is the sort of player who is tidy on the ball, keeps things ticking over and is always looking to play a forward pass and most importantly, he appears to play with his head up. There’s nothing particularly world-beating about him, he’s just a decent player who could one day become very good, but because he’s fairly young and plays for Manchester United, expectations have been raised to a ridiculous level.
What is interesting is that he appears to be trying to make that no.10 role behind the striker his own but Wayne Rooney returns, he’s likely to play ahead of him. His ability to spot a pass, play intricate one-touch football and up the tempo of a game will stand him in good stead in the future. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to see him occupying that role as often for his club, with Shinji Kagawa, Ashley Young and Rooney all just as capable of playing there.
Legendary youth coach Eric Harrison, who nurtured the now infamous crop which included David Beckham, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt had this to say on Cleverley last year, telling Goal.com: “Tom for me is without question so good that he is the best young player at United since Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham came on to the scene. He is so special because he is supremely fit, 100 per cent committed and he is supremely talented. He is not lightning fast over 100 yards or anything like that but over ten or 15 metres he is lightning. He has got quick feet and the team look fantastic when he is in the thick of it.”
Of course, he will know probably better than me how good Cleverley could potentially become, but it appears among all the faux hype that we’ve lost some perspective. Much like Jack Rodwell didn’t at Everton, Cleverley struggles to get into a fully fit Manchester United side week-in, week-out. Nicky Butt rather reasonably argued last week that the time to truly judge him is at the end of a season after he’s played between 30-35 games.
Hailing him as the best thing since sliced bread has done him no good and I don’t think that I’ve ever seen the media build a player up only to knock him down so quickly before. Patience is required because the honest answer is, we don’t really know how good he can become yet because he hasn’t played enough football at the top level.
He’s not going to suddenly become the saviour of English football, nor is he a recognised match-winner, but with an increasing emphasis put on how quickly a team moves in transition from defence to attack, he could have a valuable role to play for both club and country in the future.
He’s not a very ‘English’ type of player, but neither were Glenn Hoddle, Paul Scholes or Matt Le Tissier and that can lead to a certain degree of under-appreciation of his talents at times. There will be periods when he is anonymous just as much as there will be when he’s instrumental, but it’s all part of the learning process for him. There’s no denying that a bright future awaits him, we just have to hope that the crushing expectations don’t weigh him down in the meantime, just as they have done with Theo Walcott and countless others in the past.
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