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.

Since that time and up until this point Cleverley hasn’t produced for Manchester United. His lack of progress is really under the spotlight with the recent loss of Michael Carrick to United’s starting eleven.

Cleverley is currently David Moyes best option as a midfield replacement for Carrick. Anderson showed fine form early in his career at Manchester United, but the Brazilian’s skills have dipped in recent years while also suffering through numerous injuries. Marouane Fellaini was bought during the recent transfer window but has yet to find a regular place on the first team; either a result of his injured wrist or an inability to gel with his new teammates. Shinji Kagawa isn’t really a central midfielder. The Japanese international’s best role is behind the striker. When United do use him, he is mostly lines up on the left side of the midfield. Lastly, Nick Powell and Jesse Lingard are inexperienced and out on loan. This is Cleverley’s opportunity to prove his worth to United and its supporters. But fans are growing more and more frustrated with his each performance.

Cleverley appears to have no anticipation on the pitch; it seems that he is always one or two seconds late in reading what is going on during the game. He isn’t scoring (not that he’s being asked to), nor is he making passes into attacking areas, taking set pieces, tackling or intercepting passes. He also isn’t a physical presence and (at best) is a slightly below average defender.

So what does Manchester United do? The only thing David Moyes can do is choose from the players at his disposal, coach them up, and hope they perform to expectations. Tom Cleverley has the best resume of any of United’s current midfield options.

Can the 24-year-old find the confidence and form he had only two years ago? Or is he too mentally/physically damaged to regain the skills he displayed leading into the 2011-12 season? Is a player of his quality worthy of first team status at a club with the size and history of Manchester United?

Manchester United’s next match is Wednesday at home to Everton. Will the real Tom Cleverley show up? Or do United supporters need to sneak into the Aon Training Complex to see what no one else is seeing?

Editor’s note: For the latest Red Devils news, analysis and opinion, visit the Manchester United team page.

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