Manchester United: Is Tom Cleverley Good Enough to Rule at Old Trafford?
Long before the "Ginger Prince" announced his retirement, desperate fans were demanding a high-profile signing. Wesley Sneijder has been the most commonly mentioned player. Luka Modric is not far behind.
Some think you need a midfield destroyer, others a holding midfielder and most cite the need for a creative midfield general, i.e. a "quarterback."
The thing is, you can no longer afford to be predictable, as lesser teams have shown. When you field the same personnel every week, the pattern falls into place and makes it easier for opposing coaches to plan accordingly.
Twenty-First Century Squad Game
Players coming to United accept that, as well as those that are there already.
In another column elsewhere, four years ago, I opined that Sir Alex Ferguson was moving towards "total football." Now everybody is looking at how Barcelona play—otherwise known as "ticky tacky" football. They have no traditional "No. 9" and Messi is allowed to play where he wants, as is Ronaldo at Real Madrid.
United have traditionally played 4-4-2, with attacking wingers and full-backs. Latterly, Ferguson has used 4-5-1 more frequently, especially away in Europe—to United's cost.
So you can't run on just one creative or just one defensive midfielder.
As Sir Alex has shown, the Premier League game has to be substantially adapted for the Champions League.
Once upon a time it wasn't so. Liverpool were a strong team playing a physical English game and imposed themselves on continental sides who had a more laid-back style and were more vulnerable at the back to an "English" centre forward.
Now, as Barcelona and indeed Athletic Bilbao have shown, things are different.
Barcelona play the nearest thing to modern total football from midfield forward; they impose their game on the opposition, harry to win the ball back and hardly ever give it away. The defence is under less pressure.
Bilbao seem to have brought us full circle. They play tight, passing football and have an old-fashioned No. 9 in Fernando Llorente to finish things off.
Although United beat Fulham, Sir Alex was angry at the amount of possession given away. In practice, United play the Barcelona way, but at pace. The idea is to press and press until an opening is made, with goals still often coming from wing crosses into a striker.
So the modern midfielder of course has to pass the ball well—ideally exceptionally well—both short and long. Paul Scholes started life as a No. 10, coming into the box late to finish. As his career has gone on, he has dropped farther back, until he is now more of a holding midfielder who can pass.
His reputation is now built on his passing ability. Very few have surpassed him. Although Tom Cleverley can pass effectively, he is not that type of player.
Tom Cleverley's Role
United's game is now based more on close passing, played at pace. From the Academy right through to the first team, close ball skills and the ability to trap and pass a ball in an instant are paramount.
Cleverley can play that game and has terrific energy levels. He can also score with either foot and is often seen in and around the box.
In the Community Shield, his combination with Anderson—a skillful ball-player—won the match against City.
He is a clever player who makes intelligent moves, can see the game and change it—sometimes with an incisive pass, sometimes with a one-two or with a shot at goal. Players like Rooney know where he is and where he is going to be and vice versa.
He was impressive at Wigan and unfairly dubbed the "new Paul Scholes" when actually, he is more like the old Paul Scholes. Although he can hit a long pass, he doesn't often and will never be in Scholes' league in that respect.
If he's going to play higher than Scholes, he will need another creative midfielder like Anderson (or Eden Hazard) alongside him against lesser teams, and a holding midfielder like Carrick, Fletcher (or Javi Martinez) against the better ones.
He must also be able to interchange roles with his wingers and his fellow midfielder as appropriate. At least he reads the game well and as his confidence returns post-injury, he could be a significant influence on the title race both this season and next.
Another Midfield Signing?
Tom Cleverley is United through and through. He will not feel threatened by another midfielder being signed. He will see it as a challenge: first to fight for his place; later to form a winning combination with a new player and/or existing colleagues, like Carrick.
This season's extraordinary injury problems have shown the need for a breadth and depth of squad, but also interchangeability—especially for Michael Carrick.
If United win the title, it may well be one of Ferguson's greatest achievements, but there have been some close calls and a shambles in Europe, so it won't stop the "gaffer" from signing new players.
He is building for the future, so Martinez, Hazard and Ericksson are all possibilities. He could accommodate all three in his developing squad.
Fletcher may retire or go on a free. Carrick will remain as Ferguson's go-to player. Anderson could well move because of his perennial injury problems. Giggs and Scholes will become more peripheral, called in on demand—especially against lesser teams—to coach and encourage the younger players.
Let's hope Pogba stays. Irrespective of possible signings, he and Cleverley are the future of United. They understand each other's game, have energy and industry, complement each other and, above all, can both score goals, of which Carrick has fallen short.
Is Tom Cleverley Good Enough to Rule?
Only time will tell. He was very talented very young, but still seems to have developing to do at 23. There is no knowing how good he can become, but all the signs are very positive. His injuries will have knocked his confidence and that has shown in his recent performances.
He was in the squad on Monday, but didn't make the pitch; nor did Pogba. Sir Alex will rely on his experienced players until the title is secure, or a match is well won.
Cleverley is good enough to be around for many years, however—even into his 30s. He's the sort of player Sir Alex likes: homegrown; a committed one-team man; willing to do anything the manager asks, with an unusual humility, but not lacking self-belief.
At present, he doesn't look anything like a holding player and he's not Xavi or Iniesta, but he is good enough to be considered as a long-term England fixture.
The simple truth is that, while there are players around as good as Wesley Sneijder who can run a team from midfield, not even Luka Modric has that dominance. Roy Keane was the last player to be able to combine both attacking and defensive roles and he, like Cleverly, had a great engine. The nearest player to Keane at the moment may be Phil Jones, who was excellent in defence and attack on Monday until substituted.
Paul Scholes has dominated in a very different way. He is the orchestra leader like Sneijder, but he dictates by spraying passes all over the pitch and opening defences like a surgeon. He is also a calming influence, rather than the hustle and bustle of Cleverley.
Cleverley has developed steadily since he arrived at United and Roberto Martinez raved about him at Wigan. Paul Pogba also has the makings of a good player. Hazard, Ericksson or Martinez would bring different qualities with great close ball skills and, in Martinez's case, the ability to break up play.
In five years' time, the United first team will be very different from now and many of the elements are in place. You can expect Tom Cleverley to be playing a key role in the squad, whoever the manager is.
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