Coming into the 2011-12 season, hopes were high that the boy from Basingstoke—fresh from a successful loan spell at Wigan Athletic in the Premier League—could impact the first XI and go some way toward replacing Paul Scholes.
Indeed, his performances for the Latics in 2011, mostly from the wide areas, were strong; showing good awareness, work-rate, creativity and a decisive touch in the final third.
Fast-forward two and a half years, though, and he's in most fans' bad books, with the majority wishing to see him sold. How did the future of Man Utd's midfield go from hero to zero in such a short space of time? Is he truly as bad as the frustrated terraces make him out to be?
The short answer is no, and there are a number of factors working against him as we enter a crucial period of the Red Devils' season.
In a statistics-driven footballing world, Cleverley falls short of expectation in almost every area. Because he's not piling up remarkable pass attempts, storming into tackles or intercepting five through-balls per game, he's an "unspectacular" outlet that's extremely dispensable in midfield.
He's yet to register an assist this season, and he only has three in the Premier League since he broke into the United first team.
But Cleverley never has been, nor will he be, a prolific assist-monger; he's not the player to provide that scything, Andrea Pirlo-esque through ball for a striker to run onto and finish.
There was once a time when the England international was highly thought of by fans, yet his statistics have only improved (in particular defensively) as the months have gone by. Toward the end of the 2012-13 season Sir Alex Ferguson gave him a prolonged rest, yet fans were questioning where he was when every fresh lineup was announced.
Why the sudden change?
It's no secret that the team, as a whole, are underperforming. That has a knock-on effect, and in those times fans seek desperately for players to pin their hopes on. Cleverley, as discussed, is not an outstanding technical player and doesn't excel on the stat sheet. He doesn't stand out—or perhaps he does, but in the wrong way.
When United were busy winning the title he was part of a well-oiled machine; with the club struggling, he's a spare part. Good for nothing.
Cleverley's game has not changed, but what has been altered is the peripherals around him and the tactical setup used. There is no doubt that he plays his best football in a flat 4-3-3 formation, and his showing at Villa Park this season—where he scored—was a stellar one.
His passing accuracy for the day was a whopping 94 percent, making 75 of his 80 attempts. He retains a 90.1 percent rating on the season, which is 3.5 percent higher than Carrick's—the deep-lying metronome who recycles possession so well.
It's in the 4-3-3 that his "role"—where his strengths lie—truly come to the fore: he's a distributor, a facilitator, a recycler of the ball. He's not defensively outstanding or a genioso attacker. He's serviceable in every area, and he's reliable enough with the ball at his feet.
With Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney ahead of him and Michael Carrick behind him under Ferguson, Cleverley did an extremely efficient job of stitching the lines together and linking both defensive and attacking phases.
No slaloming runs or piercing passes, sure, but an extremely important job from a tactical standpoint. No one currently measures how many times a player links defence to attack per game. If they did, Cleverley would be a top-five Premier League nominee.
Formation changes, sub-par showings from teammates and injuries to key attackers have gone a long way to showing us Cleverley's limitations: he doesn't seem to be able to turn it on without one of Rooney or RvP present.
But he never pretends to be anything he's not, yet fans continue to measure, quantify, grade and judge his performances in the wrong fashion.
His style of play, his brief under SAF, no longer exists or suits Moyes' system. The manager hasn't done enough to adjust his style or incorporate his skills, and Cleverley hasn't been able to adapt.
Every football player is a jigsaw puzzle, and right now this one doesn't belong in the box. Unless Moyes changes the picture Cleverley will never slot back in, but that doesn't mean he's broken beyond repair.
Making Cleverley a scapegoat is easy, but it's far from the big picture. There are multiple factors at play here, and it's a case of playing style, tactical fit, personnel available and unrealistic (wrong) gradation of performances.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!