Tom Cleverley Will Benefit from a Fresh Start Away from Old Trafford

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Tom Cleverley Will Benefit from a Fresh Start Away from Old Trafford
Associated Press

John Percy reported in The Telegraph on Thursday that Manchester United’s England midfielder, Tom Cleverley, is close to joining Aston Villa for a fee in the region of £8 million.

The story has gained momentum over the weekend.

On Friday Ian Ladyman suggested in The Daily Mail that Cleverley had met with the former Manchester United captain and current assistant manager at Villa Park, Roy Keane, in order to receive assurances of first-team football should he join the Birmingham club ahead of Monday’s transfer deadline.

Cleverley was a notable absentee from Louis van Gaal’s match-day squad when Manchester United drew 0-0 with Burnley at Turf Moor on Saturday, and on Sunday John Percy reported that Villa’s bid had been accepted.

Percy, though, cautions in his piece that Villa boss, Paul Lambert, may face late competition from Everton and Hull City in his efforts to land the 25-year-old.

Sky Sports reported on Sunday that Hull have matched Villa’s £8 million offer, while Everton manager Roberto Martinez is known to be a longtime admirer of the midfielder since he had Cleverley on loan at Wigan during the 2010-11 season.

Although the Toffees have already added Gareth Barry and Muhamed Besic as central midfield reinforcements this summer (and spent heavily in recruiting Romelu Lukaku from Chelsea and signing Samuel Eto’o on a free transfer), the opportunity to sign Cleverley may be too good an opportunity for the Spanish coach to pass up.

The fact that Ross Barkley could miss as much as five months of the season through injury makes the need another midfield recruit at Goodison Park look pressing.

Regardless of Cleverley’s ultimate destination, though, it is imperative that the midfielder departs Old Trafford before his career descends into irreparable decline.

Van Gaal clearly determined early on in his reign at United that Cleverley was not a player who featured prominently in his first-team plans.

Although the Basingstoke native started in United’s 1-1 draw at the Stadium of Light last week, his presence was a product of necessity rather than design owing to the absences of Marouane Fellaini and Ander Herrera through injury.

And with a move for a dynamic midfield talent like Arturo Vidal still in the offing, Cleverley looks set to enjoy even less first-team action at Old Trafford this season than he did under David Moyes last time out.

Indeed, when one looks at the stats Cleverley has never been given much of a chance to play consistently and to prove himself at United.

The midfielder made only 22 appearances under Moyes last season, precisely the same number that he enjoyed during Sir Alex Ferguson’s final year in charge in 2012-13 (in both cases, the midfielder seldom completed all 90 minutes). In Cleverley’s debut season as a senior player at United (2011-12), meantime, he made only 10 appearances.

In this light the fact that Cleverley has so quickly become a scapegoat among many United fans seems grossly unfair.

Over the previous two seasons, Cleverley has been criticized owing to the fact that his more reserved midfield passing game has been seen to hinder the pace of United’s traditionally direct attacking.

Furthermore, Cleverley has become widely regarded as a “sideways passer"—a player who never looks for the progressive forward option and instead shirks creative responsibility on to the shoulders of his teammates.

Some of the criticism levelled at Cleverley is certainly justified, and he has not kicked on to the extent that United fans may have hoped after that hugely impressive loan spell at Wigan.

However, one feels that much of the reason why Cleverley has been unable to fulfil his potential at Old Trafford owes to the fact that he been put under an unfair degree of scrutiny and pressure.

Every misplaced pass that Cleverley makes (which is not many: Squawka quotes the midfielder as having a 90 percent pass completion rate for last season) is magnified to an unrivalled extent. And the inevitable criticism that Cleverley receives online after almost every performance is far more vociferous than that endured by any other player at Old Trafford.

Indeed, there was even a grossly distasteful internet petition set up to lobby against Cleverley’s inclusion in Roy Hodgson’s England World Cup squad earlier this year. 

In the face of this torrent of confidence-crippling abuse, it is inevitable that Cleverley will retreat more into his shell on the pitch. Maybe the midfielder is now more liable to take the safe passing option rather than risk condemnation for misplacing a through-ball.

And the midfielder’s now infamous comments to The Mirror that his “job goes under the radar at times” because he plays in a Spanish passing style reflects the fact that the barrage of criticism that he has faced has reshaped his game.

But one feels that if Cleverley can establish himself as a key midfield operator at a club where he is wanted by the manager and by the fans, we may well see him rediscover that confidence and dynamism on the ball that made him such a dangerous offensive midfield talent at Wigan just three seasons ago.

And for England and English football fans, that can only be positive.

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