Tom Cleverley: Manchester United’s Midfield Enigma

Manchester United supporters are at a disadvantage. They don’t get to see Tom Cleverley in training every day. Apparently Cleverley is one hell of a player on the training ground because Red Devils managers keep selecting the midfielder into United’s starting eleven; one of those managers being the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson. National team coach Roy Hodgson (who is assisted by former United defender Gary Neville) also sees something in the player because Cleverley has also found his way into England’s starting eleven.

What are these managers seeing that the average football fan isn’t?

First off, Cleverley is a nice footballer and would be a good addition to many teams in the Premier League. He can be tidy moving the ball side to side and…um?…if someone can point out other things he does well, please comment below.

Sarcasm aside, there was a time when Cleverley rapidly moved up the ranks at Manchester United. His ascent was slowed because Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick had cemented their places in Sir Alex Ferguson’s midfield. So Cleverley was initially loaned out; first to Leicester City, then Watford, and ultimately Wigan. The midfielder shined at each destination and was hailed as Manchester United’s “midfielder of the future”.

Beginning in 2009, Cleverley was used by England U-21s and eventually received an invitation to play in a friendly with the national team in August 2011. Coaches raved about him and his combination of maturity mixed with a youthful energy. Young midfield players have a tendency to go looking for the ball too often, desperate to get themselves involved, but Cleverley showed a maturity by pulling away to find little pockets of space in behind the opposing midfield. When he did receive the ball, he instantly looked forward for the next pass or pushed it into attacking areas. He was a player brimming with confidence and potential.

At the start of the 2011-12 Premier League season, Paul Scholes retired and Cleverley had finally secured his place on Manchester United’s squad. The midfielder impressed the fans and coaching staff during United’s preseason tour of the United States. He followed up those performances by playing a huge part in Manchester United’s come-from-behind victory over Manchester City during the Community Shield:

Cleverley then contributed to Manchester United’s opening three wins of the season; including an 8-2 rout of Arsenal at Old Trafford:

But in United’s fourth game of the season at Bolton, Cleverley suffered ligament damage to his foot after a hard tackle from Kevin Davies. The injury sidelined the midfielder for a month:

(The video quality is poor, but the tackle takes place just after the 30 second mark)

Cleverley returned for a League Cup match in October, but had to leave the following match against Everton in the 57th minute due to an ankle injury. That injury would take him out of the lineup until February 2012. Sir Alex Ferguson would eventually convince Paul Scholes to come out of retirement; a decision that thrusted United back into the title race. When Cleverley did return from injury, he wasn’t the same player and was dropped down the midfield pecking order. Whether this was due his fitness, a lack of confidence, or other circumstances; fans will never know.

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