Why Manchester United Will Not Be Contenders with Tom Cleverley in the Side

Rob Blanchette@@_Rob_BFeatured ColumnistMarch 4, 2014

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 05:  Tom Cleverley of Manchester United is challenged by Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second leg match between Manchester United and Real Madrid at Old Trafford on March 5, 2013 in Manchester, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

It is worth pointing out from the start that this is not an exercise in demonising Tom Cleverley.

But the title does indeed tell the important part of the story.

Manchester United fans have debated about one part of the pitch more than any other over the best part of a decade. 

As The Faithful watched the halcyon days of Paul Scholes end with a heavy heart, much conversation was generated in the pubs of Stretford around who would eventually take his place.

Scholes was pivotal in the centre of the United team. A world-class entity who could dictate play and tempo. And this was not the Scholes of yesteryear. This vintage incarnation of the player was a matured version, like a whisky that had been stored in a barrel to become even more superior.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - APRIL 23:  Paul Scholes of Manchester United looks disappointed at the end of the UEFA Champions League Semi-Final, first leg match between Barcelona and Manchester United at the Camp Nou stadium on April 23, 2008 in Barcelona, Spain.
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

Scholes played deeper in his later years with Michael Carrick at his side. The Geordie was his bodyguard, allowing the flame-haired wizard to spray balls around the park with his eyes closed.

Supporters knew it could not last forever, so when would Sir Alex Ferguson make his move and initiate a purchase to carry the torch on? Who would that player be?

The answer was Owen Hargreaves. A player of Bryan Robson-like courage and industry, but with the technical talent of a modern European midfielder. 

However, as we know this part of the script was dramatically edited as Hargreaves' knees gave way, leaving United to rely on a mixture of its older servants and younger contingent. 

Since the demise of Hargreaves, United's midfield has drifted season to season, with little excitement and direction. 

In 2011, there was a flicker of a hopeful flame that the Red Devils had found a midfield solution. 

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 28:  Wayne Rooney of Manchester United celebrates Tom Cleverley and Ashley Young after scoring his third goal from the penalty spot during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

United destroyed Arsenal 8-2 with a central midfield of Tom Cleverley and Anderson, and it felt like the turning of a page. 

Cleverley and Anderson bossed proceedings during that match and they looked like an exciting partnership, especially as Ferguson looked reluctant in purchasing a player for the core of his team.

But Cleverley's season was derailed only weeks later when a challenge by Kevin Davies badly injured him and destroyed the form he had built. 

At the time, Ferguson said of Cleverley, and the loss of him: "[He is] absolutely phenomenal. I've not seen that impact from a young player at our club for a long time. He's been a loss because he's got something different from everyone else." (h/t Ian Herbert of The Independent.)

Then Fergie gave him the ultimate accolade, declaring the player as "probably the best midfielder in Britain." (h/t The Independent.)

Since that period in 2011, Cleverley has featured heavily in the United first team. He has become a regular fixture in the England squad and appears to be a favourite with Roy Hodgson.

RIMINI, ITALY - MARCH 23:  Tom Cleverley of England talks to the press on March 23, 2013 in Rimini, Italy.  (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

However, the 24-year-old has become vilified by football fans of both his own club and opposition support. Marc Williams of The Independent reported last Saturday how a petition had been set up to stop the player being involved at the forthcoming World Cup. 

His lack of "world-class ability" is used as a stick to beat him with even though other players who do not meet this requirement suffer less criticism. 

Cleverley is the original scapegoat, just as his midfield partner Carrick once was, as was Darren Fletcher, as was Jonny Evans. 

But the aforementioned players eventually won round the fanbase. The question is: Will Cleverley walk in their shoes?

He recently acknowledged his critics in an intriguing interview with Oliver Holt of The Mirror

He said to Holt: 

I feel I've been made a scapegoat a little bit. A few people in the media certainly seem to have a perception of me not doing much in the team. Don’t get me wrong, I know I can do better but people are making a big thing about how I don’t score enough goals when that is not necessarily my first job in the team.

HULL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26: Tom Cleverley, Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez of Manchestere United celebrate the third goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Hull City and Manchester United at KC Stadium on December 26, 2013
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The player has featured 19 times this season, per Squawka, as David Moyes' options have been limited by injury. The figures themselves have been kind to Cleverley with the player having the second-joint best passing statistics of any United player, with an 89% completion rate, only behind recent arrival Juan Mata and better than Carrick or Fletcher. 

But perception is everything. Fans watch Cleverley and see a player that they think is not United-class, so for him to catch a break becomes impossible, especially when the team is losing games. 

Part of the problem here is his development curve initiated by Sir Alex. 

Cleverley came through the United ranks as an attacking midfielder. He was a player who was happy to play behind the striker or fill the role of a winger. He was a forward-thinking individual with a good football brain. 

This creative side of Cleverley saw him have a hugely successful loan spell with Watford, where he was named their Player of the Season after his exceptional goalscoring exploits. 

But like with Anderson, Ferguson systematically stripped away all of the layers of forward-thinking talent that made them both unique to fit them into his system.

The demolishing of Arsenal would have led Sir Alex to believe that he had got it right with both of them, but ultimately he destroyed them.

Cleverley has become functional and a useful squad player.

His contemporary Danny Welbeck has started to bloom having moved from his work-orientated wider position into his preferred striking role, but with the purchase of Mata, Cleverley is destined to play deep for the foreseeable future.

Take into account the returning talent of Nick Powell in 2014/15, and the future looks bleak for the young international at Man Utd.

TELFORD, ENGLAND - MARCH 21:  Nick Powell (2L) of England is fouled by Hakan Cinemre (L) of Turkey during the England U19's versus Turkey U19's International match at New Bucks Head Stadium on March 21, 2013 in Telford, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/
Michael Steele/Getty Images

Ultimately, Moyes will purchase for the midfield in the summer and that will be the end of Cleverley's time at United, unless he is happy with reserve-team football. 

The game has become about midfield domination over the past 20 years and unfortunately for Cleverley he is neither a Scholes nor a Hargreaves. He is nowhere near their standard. 

However, I have little doubt that Cleverley would be a huge success away from United. 

He is a Premier League-standard footballer and a great squad member for the team, but he cannot be relied upon to drag forward a club of the size of Man Utd from such a key position on the pitch. 

Like Anderson, he will prove that he is a good player and that he once upon a time deserved all the teenage plaudits he received.

The last couple of years have been unfortunate for the lad from Bradford, but he is a good footballer who will represent his country many more times. 

Unfortunately for him, that possible future will probably happen away from Old Trafford. 



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