Tom Cleverley made his Manchester United debut three years ago to the week. Having struggled to live up to his billing as a future star since then, the midfielder has one final chance to deliver on the promise he once showed for United’s youth teams.
Poor form this season will surely see Cleverley leave Old Trafford in the next 12 months.
For a club with a proud philosophy of developing young players and seeing them flourish in the first team, Cleverley’s woes stand in stark contrast to the number of success stories that United’s academy can boast.
The FA Chairman’s England Commission report, published at the end of last season, showed that United are joint sixth among Premier League clubs at bringing through home-grown players. United have done everything they can to make Cleverley part of that statistic.
Cleverley progressed through United’s academy before being loaned out to Leicester and then Watford, where he was named Player of the Year in 2009/10. Cleverley was then sent on loan to Wigan Athletic and thrived under Roberto Martinez’s style of technical, passing football in the Premier League.
He gained tremendous experience through those loan moves and returned to United ready to make a name for himself.
But Cleverley has only impressed in sporadic bursts over the last three years. Failing to find any form of consistency has been his biggest downfall.
Van Gaal, however, has come to United and introduced a system that suits Cleverley’s style of play. The 5-3-2 calls for the three-man midfield in which he has played most of his better football, where his shorter, snappier passing can be effective.
This pre-season, he has a chance to show Van Gaal that he has a role to play, which is something Cleverley acknowledges, per Rob Dawson of the Manchester Evening News:
I had a good break over the summer, recharged the batteries and it is a fresh start and chance to impress the manager. I hope the football can bring out the best in me, I watched [the Netherlands] and I think I can be his type of player. I think there is a place for me and I have to prove that.
In the second game of the United States tour, a 3-2 win over Roma, Cleverley captained the side in a smart, confidence-boosting move by Van Gaal.
United looked nervy in the opening exchanges, taking time to settle, but it was indicative of Cleverley’s problems that he rarely featured in the match.
He gave the ball away a few times, and even though he kept things ticking over nicely, there was little conviction about his play. And it’s too easy to say that Cleverley’s performances don’t matter in such pre-season games.
Van Gaal has already bought Ander Herrera, and he will probably look to sign at least one more midfielder this summer. Cleverley, like every other player in the squad, is playing for his place.
When he was presented with another chance to impress a few days later against Inter Milan, this time as a second-half substitute, Cleverley again made very little impact.
Of the three midfield places in Van Gaal’s 5-3-2, one would imagine that Juan Mata and Herrera are shoo-ins to fill the first two spots.
That leaves Cleverley fighting it out with Michael Carrick, who is currently injured, and Darren Fletcher, who has been superb in United’s three pre-season games thus far, for the third and final midfield position.
Against Real Madrid, Valencia and a potential International Champions Cup final, Cleverley must show Van Gaal that he has something to offer. If he features, he must make an impact in those games.
Performances akin to those he’s shown so far under Van Gaal, typified by a lack of incisive play, will see Cleverley consigned to a bit-part role next season.
In the field of psychology there are two general factors that determine a person's motivation: the need to achieve (NACH) and the need to avoid failure (NAF).
Those who need to avoid failure are cautious, conservative and tend to shirk responsibility in the face of a challenge. That’s a pretty apt description of Cleverley’s performances over the last 18 months. Much of his play is safe and unadventurous.
It’s a problem because United need midfielders who can exact some authority on the game, especially when other Premier League teams can boast strong, commanding figures in the middle of the pitch. It’s possible that Cleverley’s mindset, rather than his ability, is the real problem behind his struggles.
If there’s one manager who can fix that issue, it’s Van Gaal. He’s a supreme man manager with a very personal, hands-on style of coaching. That’s what Cleverley needs at this stage of his career.
If Van Gaal can inject some confidence into his game, some attitude, then the flutters of ability Cleverley has shown might be showcased on a more regular basis.
Ultimately, Cleverley has a chance, possibly his last one, to come good at United. It’s up to him to make it happen.