Can Tom Cleverley step up from a good squad player to an important member of the first team
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This summer there has been a very public stance by United on central midfielders. David Moyes has not only made it clear that he’d like to sign at least one, probably two players in that area but United have decided to be open about the pursuits of Fabregas and Fellaini, whilst links to other CMs continue to swirl. For Tom Cleverley, competition would not only be positive, but it’s necessary.
The day after United’s Community Shield success Tom Cleverley celebrated his 24th birthday. For a player often still touted as being ‘young’, patience has in some quarters has worn thin. You can understand why too – Monday night’s draw with Chelsea was only his 50th appearance for the club and he plays in the area of the team that is the weakest and has the least depth.
That Cleverley has been a late developer has been well covered ever since his debut two years ago. He’s a busy player, keen to get on the ball and link play. Criticisms vary from him ‘hiding’ in games to shirking his defensive responsibilities.
He is a victim of our own transfer incompetence in many ways. During the last two years competition for spaces in the centre of the pitch has come from: an ageing and now retired genius; an ageing converted winger; an often unfit Brazilian; an ill Scotsman; a centre back come right back come part time centre mid; and the one man holding it all together, Carrick. As such, when fit, Cleverley’s simply had to play. That we’ve lacked quality and genuine alternatives has meant that not only has Cleverley had minimal competition to keep him on his toes, but seen him have to take on responsibilities that a more suited player could fill. For example, there are central midfielders who are able to offer more physical resistance, more able to get into goalscoring positions, and instinctively more defensive minded.
Importantly, there’s a role for Cleverley to play. Ferguson, a perfectly good judge of players, has always liked him and over the last twelve months, he’s become an important player for England too – doing everything bar score. Fans get too worked up on trying to compare players with one another; is he as good as Wilshere? Can he be the next Scholes? What he can provide is energy, a sound passing outlet and hopefully more of a goal threat, but he needs help.
Cleverley won’t be suited to every opponent, in the same way that the wingers and strikers are often rotated for certain sides and certain situations. Sometimes he’ll have more of an impact off the bench against tired legs or if United need to keep the ball. To aid him and importantly not replace him, United need to bring in different types of central midfielders – some who do different things to him and some who’ll work nicely in tandem with him.
Some fans still doubt whether central midfielders may be needed. Happy with what we have and placing trust and faith in a few of the younger, fringe members of the squad such as Powell and Petrucci – both of whom (and others) are better suited to loans right now. Faith in youth is something that is synonymous with the club and fans but that also shouldn’t mask the need to improve and strengthen the first team in the present from time to time. The likes of Januzaj will get minutes in time but right now he’s not ready yet for the weekly pressures and rigours of Premier League football.
Maybe most importantly, it’s worth acknowledging that other teams have improved. We may have won the league last year, in part down to a few excellent individuals, but since then Man City, Chelsea and Spurs have all improved their squads whilst our weakest area remains as it was.
Early season signs aren’t gloomy though. Cleverley’s started the season excellently, seemingly responding well to one of the obvious changes Moyes has introduced – off the ball work. It’s notable how hard the players are working to press high and win the ball back when not in possession. For someone like Cleverley who’s naturally fit, it suits him and he’s played a big part in our midfield controlling important periods in the opening games.
Maybe this will be the season that Cleverley steps up from a good squad player to an important member of the first team. He needs some luck with injuries and to be managed carefully so that there are no signs of burn-out like some suggested last season. The club want to add rather than replace in the middle, there are options in every other part of the squad apart from there. Until that happens, fans will continue to spot Cleverley’s flaws rather than what he brings to the side.