Someone asked me "What do Manchester United need to do in this summer's transfer market?"
"Buy a new midfield," I said.
Naturally, my response was a cheap attempt at eliciting a laugh; but there was also a degree of truth in my words.
Michael Carrick has had a terrific season, even if his form spluttered into the winter period. But no other midfielder in Sir Alex Ferguson's squad has risen above mediocrity for an extended spell.
Nani, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia have all had underwhelming campaigns, as has Anderson, who threatened greatness for a few weeks in October, then did his usual disappearing trick.
But what about one of Sir Alex's great hopes—Tom Cleverley?
Here's why the midfielder will eventually be a star for the Red Devils, even if many, myself included, seem to forget about him from time to time.
What His Coaches and Peers Say
In December, 2011, Fergie stunned the footballing world by claiming "He, to my mind, is probably the best midfield player in Britain, potentially."
He has certainly been a regular fixture in the England setup, alongside his rival for the distinction, Jack Wilshere.
Last year, Roy Hodgson compared Cleverley with Spain's Cesc Fabregas—high praise indeed and an indication of how highly the England boss rates him (via The Guardian).
Speaking about his domestic rival, captain Steven Gerrard added, "He's playing for one of the biggest clubs in Europe and he's broken into the England team already, so he's got a fantastic future."
"If he keeps learning the game and trying to improve, he's going to be a fantastic footballer."
Before the season began, Michael Carrick issued a stark warning to his midfield partner (via The Independent).
"It's just about keeping the standards high—we set the standards and the hard part is keeping to that standard consistently. The more games he plays the better he'll play," Carrick said.
The 31-year-old's words, while encouraging, can be read as a veiled criticism of Cleverley's past form.
Although he has improved since his breakthrough loan spell at Wigan Athletic in 2010/11, at 23, Cleverley dipped in and out of relevance last term, and needed to make a significant impact this season.
What He Has Done Well
Tom Cleverley has developed into a key player for the Red Devils.
The two have developed a familiar understanding; one that's almost telepathic.
They provide cover for each other when caught out of position and make sure they're available for a pass when the other is under pressure.
He injects pace into the side alongside the more static Carrick—United play with a far higher tempo with Cleverley in the lineup than when Ryan Giggs or Phil Jones play.
His passing is tidy and accurate—he is one of only seven midfielders to have completed over 90 percent of his passes in the Premier League this term (via WhoScored.com).
He has been a reliable presence in the team, even if his contribution often goes unnoticed. He is a busy player whose dedication to the cause has never been in question.
But it's his improved maturity and intelligence on the pitch that has impressed fans the most.
Where He Still Needs to Improve
For all of his development, there remain questions regarding Cleverley's worth to the team.
What is his true position?
He has mostly featured in holding midfield as a link with those in front of him. Both Sir Alex and Hodgson have briefly used him in the creative No. 10 role, but this felt like more of a stopgap than a permanent switch.
He even featured on the left wing against Sunderland last weekend, but this experiment proved a failure.
Ideally, Cleverley would fit well into the 4-3-3, acting as one of the marauding central players in front of the side's anchor, but the 4-2-3-1 seems to be the formation of choice for Sir Alex.
His contribution to the team will also be in question until his more tangible numbers improve.
Yes, he has completed 90.2 percent of his passes in the EPL, but he has only notched a solitary assist.
His stunning goal against the Black Cats in December showed just how much of an attacking threat he can be, but until he can become a productive asset in the final third, such moments will be few and far between.
He has been productive without being creative—a dog with plenty of bark but little bite.
How Does He Fit into the Future?
When assessing Tom Cleverley's future, I'll be the first to admit he won't be a world-class player within the next two years.
But the point is that he has improved—he has improved every season of his career and one gets the feeling he's only scratched the surface of his potential.
He has time on his side—Sir Alex is a patient manager who is willing to give his players a fair chance in the pursuit of individual greatness.
Nick Powell will be nipping at his heels for a place in the first team, but the Red Devils' lack of top-quality options in the middle of the park shouldn't worry him too much.
United are likely to look to buy a world-class player to slot into the box-to-box position next term, but that doesn't necessarily mean Cleverley's stock will drop.
Rotation has always been a key aspect of Sir Alex's tactical thinking, and a benefit to the club's youngsters.
Tom Cleverley is likely to hit his peak at around 26 or 27, at which time the Scotsman may well have retired.
It's difficult to say what the makeup of the team will be then, but if the midfielder continues to develop in the intervening years, it's difficult to envision a lineup without him.
United could buy a whole new midfield this summer, selling Nani, Anderson and Valencia, but that wouldn't make Cleverley any less important to the future of the team.
What do you think the future holds for Tom Cleverley? Will he be a star for the Red Devils?
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