Manchester United midfielder Tom Cleverly will need to adapt his game if he is to continue having a role at Old Trafford
After a couple seasons of mediocrity in Manchester United's midfield, the Reds have finally brought over the bruiser they were looking for in Marouane Fellaini.
Though he's very skilled with the ball, Fellaini's real value comes with his ability to be a physical menace, frequently winning aerial duels and using his brute strength to dispossess opponents.
It's unlikely that Cleverley will suddenly grow six inches and put on 40 pounds of muscle, so he would have to excel in other areas to win his job back from Fellaini.
Additionally, it should be noted that Cleverley has almost no chance of unseating the steady Michael Carrick, while Fellaini appears already to have replaced him in only his second week with the club.
Cleverley will have to learn to value brief substitute appearances—such as his 10-minute cameo against Bayer Leverkusen—as chances to prove his worth to David Moyes. The Englishman will need to make a great case to Moyes for the rest of the season to give himself any chance to unseat Fellaini.
In general, that case was not made before Fellaini arrived, but rather it appeared that United needed reinforcements in the midfield.
Without further delving into the world of advanced statistics, Cleverley needs to play better and end the run of complacency that finally ended him with on the bench.
Even on a poor run of form, it's hard to miss Cleverley's work ethic throughout matches, often highlighted by perfectly timed, crowd-pleasing tackles.
However, hard work will not give him the passing vision or aerial ability required of a defensive midfielder, and he needs at least one of these traits.
Unlike Carrick, Cleverley rarely plays long balls, as he is described by WhoScored as a player who "likes to play layoffs."
This anti-risk mentality is not warranted for someone who is sometimes inaccurate with even the simplest of passes, represented by the howler of a game he had against Liverpool (he scored a WhoScored rating of only 6.43).
Just as he is incomplete as a defensive midfielder, he is not the finished product as an attacking midfielder. He is good leading a counterattack, but a mere two goals and two assists leads to questions about whether he's the right fit for that role in the final third.
With a lack of vision and true physicality to play a defensive role, and a mediocre end product in the final third, it seems unlikely that Cleverley would overtake Fellaini, Carrick, Shinji Kagawa or Wayne Rooney in the lineup.
However, Rafael is still out with injury, and Phil Jones and Chris Smalling are serving as unspectacular replacements, so there is still something missing at right-back currently.
Is it unfathomable for Cleverley to try his hand in United's back four?
A seismic shift into a full-time defender is unlikely for Cleverley, but playing there sometimes a la Antonio Valencia would possibly give him more minutes.
Unlike center-midfield, right-back doesn't involve too many aerial battles, and Cleverley would be quick and strong enough otherwise to hold his own at the back.
There's a distinct possibility that this will not happen and that it's not remotely on the radars of Cleverley and Moyes.
In that case it would be smarter for the Englishman to realize the unlikelihood of him of Fellaini and Carrick in the lineup. Instead, he should reinvent himself as an attacking midfielder, as finishing is a lot easier to improve than overall strength, and obviously height.
Most United fans would say Kagawa is far superior to Cleverley, but based on the lack of respect he's been shown by Moyes thus far, Cleverley has every reason to believe a good performance in an attacking role could land him there for the long haul.
Best of luck to you, Tom.
(All stats and info via ESPNFC unless otherwise indicated)
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