Why Tom Cleverley failed to fulfil his potential at United…

Guest Author: Doron

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After a 14 year association with Manchester United, Tom Cleverley has taken his first steps towards leaving the club to further his career elsewhere, initially on loan with Aston Villa. His departure is more likely to be greeted with cheers rather than tears by the majority of United fans, but, in truth, what became of his career at Old Trafford is incredibly unfortunate.


A great deal was written about Cleverley’s youth career when he inititally broke into United’s first team, however, a quick recap sets the scene nicely and provides good insight into his character.

There is little doubt that many of United’s fans today would have been angry that he was even appearing for the U18 side in the 2005/06 season. A small, weak player, used often as a fullback, there appeared little reason for United to want to keep him on as a scholar and then, later, a professional. Those who watched him a bit closer talked of a technically sound player, a hard worker who was eager to learn. Indeed there are similarities between him and Jesse Lingard (amongst others), and United have always been open to retaining players who are either small or late developers, as their faith in Paul Scholes and David Beckham, respectively, can attest.

A long injury lay-off aged 17 wasn’t enough to derail him and he returned in 2007 to become an important player for the Reserve side. Still small and now in a more advanced role, he was made captain of the Reserve side aged 18 and was rewarded with a first team appearance on the pre-season tour of 2008, in which he scored. By January 2009 the club felt he was ready to take the next step in his development and he went on loan to League 1 side, Leicester City.


Although his loan spell at Leicester ended early due to injury, he played his part in helping them to be crowned League 1 Champions and for the second season running was nominated for United’s Reserve team player of the year award. This marked great progress for a player that at this point, had never been capped by his country at any youth level. At this stage, he had still remained firmly under the radar.

During the following season, the 2009/10 campaign, a wider audience started to take note. Watford were expected to struggle having had to sell numerous players and Cleverley, with no experience at Championship level, was brought in on loan to play at the heart of a youthful side.

The Watford loan is probably best remembered for his goals, one every three games, but there was much more to it than simply putting the ball in the net. He played with freedom and pace, a quick one-touch style that, along with Lansbury and the talented Don Cowie, ensured Watford were entertaining to watch for a struggling side. As at Leicester, the loan spell was cut short due to injury but he had done enough to help Watford avoid relegation and win their player of the year award. He was their second highest scorer, with eleven goals to his name, and one of only three players to score more than five goals in the season.

He returned to United full of confidence and as a member of England’s U21 side. Pre-season with United couldn’t have gone better, and although at one point it seemed he would stay and be part of the first team squad, he was eventually sent on loan to gain Premier League experience with Wigan Athletic. It would be another successful loan spell and, for the second season running, he helped his adopted side avoid relegation.

September 2011 – Bolton away

Along with Welbeck, Jones and Smalling, Cleverley was set to become a key part of a new-look, younger, fresher, quicker United side for the 2011/12 season. It started well as he played his part in possibly the best goal United have scored for many years; a move of intricate one touch football around the penalty area that finished with Nani scoring, as United went on to beat rivals, Manchester City, in the Charity Shield. That goal transpired to be little more than a tease as United struggled to replicate that kind of football throughout the season, despite starting with convincing wins over Spurs, Arsenal and Bolton – the latter two thrashed.

That game against Bolton was an important landmark for Cleverley’s career at United, for all the wrong reasons. Kevin Davies scythed through him early on and, despite attempting to continue, Cleverley’s match, and good start to the season, was over. The damage was to ligaments in his foot – the impact of which is still felt today.

Understanding injuries as people who don’t play the game is incredibly difficult. I am lucky to have had some exposure (via my work) to athletes who have suffered injuries of varying severity. It is as much a mental battle as it is a physical one; the constant worrying about whether the injury will fully heal or whether the body will forever be scarred, and the difficulty of finding the motivation to go through all the rehabilitation on your own when your team-mates are going about life as normal. It’s too easy to assume that they should simply ‘deal with it’ because they earn a lot of money.

Cleverley had been through this process before, with injuries suffered at youth level and out on loan, but it was different on this occasion. This time, he had to come back at the highest level, and into a Manchester United side whose central midfield had been decimated. Fletcher was ill; Anderson, like Cleverley, started well but had also suffered injuries; it had been left to Scholes, returning from retirement, and Giggs, to partner Carrick in the middle.

On his league return away to Everton he was outstanding but suffered another injury in that game and by the time he returned again, United were low on confidence, surrendering an eight point lead to allow their neighbours to win the title. By the end of the season, one that had started so brightly, Cleverley had managed to start just five league games, with Carrick the sole central midfielder to start more than fifteen.

Kevin Davies’ tackle in early September had done more than derail Cleverley’s season; it shattered his confidence and marked the point at which the player began to lose his vitality. Although it had only been a few games at the start of the 2011/12 season prior to his injury, he (and Anderson) had taken hold of them and wanted the ball. He was a major reason why United had played such positive football. That player, sadly, did not return, or at least not on a regular basis. Instead, he became associated with ‘crab’ football, constantly shifting the ball sideways and, United fans would bemoan, never taking risk. At times this was unfair; United’s midfield had become puritanically functional, with clear instructions to get the ball out to the wide players. However, statistically, the fans had a point, and of the central players, Cleverley played the fewest forward passes. With the pressure mounting on United’s increasingly desolate midfield, the safest option for all the midfielders tended to be the least adventurous and with that the pressure and discontent from supporters only continued to rise.


To many, the player built up unfairly as the next great central midfielder came to symbolise United’s demise in central midfield. Having barely had time to adjust to games in the Premier League for United due to injuries in the 2011/12 season, Cleverley was thrown in at the deep end the following season and seemed to hide from physical situations, maybe for fear of injury again. The pressure of playing for United is enormous, some can hack it and some can’t.

Despite United’s title success in 2012/13 there was no sense that Cleverley had improved. Carrick had his best campaign for United and all the football went through him. In previous loan spells, Cleverley had been best when he’d been the player everyone looked to in the middle but at United, this wasn’t the case. This lack of importance encouraged him to take the easy option and defer to seniority as Carrick was the ‘out-ball’. With Rooney, van Persie and Hernandez contributing nearly 50 league goals between them, there was no added pressure on the central midfielders to weigh in with goals. Instead, they merely had to keep things ticking over.

United had become about function rather than flamboyance. Players weren’t necessarily encouraged to express themselves and with City as reigning champions, winning by any means was the only fundamental requirement. Whilst this method brought success with the title returning to the red half of Manchester, it wasn’t the right platform for Cleverley to improve as a player and by the end of the season, he had regressed to the role of bit-part player having been a regular during the earlier months of the campaign.

The David Moyes shambles of 2013/14 saw Cleverley become one of the main players to take flak. He had not improved and was part of a midfield that yet again wasn’t encouraged to play at a quick tempo; as a result, his performances in a side bereft of confidence were unsurprisingly poor. By now he no longer got into goalscoring positions or looked to be a creative spark and instead was, at best, a stable link-man who struggled against stronger opponents in a two-man midfield. It reached the point where he simply had almost no positive impact on games and was unrecognisable from the ambitious and confident player who’d done so well a few years earlier out on loan.

What next?

This move, assuming it’s a stop-gap between United and a permanent move elsewhere, is a chance for him to reluctantly draw a line under his United career. He’s become the butt of many jokes with a worrying number of United fans seriously believing he’s not even good enough for the Premier League. He needs to rediscover his inner belief and play regularly with freedom to express himself, potentially in a three man midfield. In the right team he may be able to unlock the Cleverley we briefly saw in August/September 2011 and thrive again.

Clearly, for both Manchester United and Tom Cleverley himself this is the right decision; his confidence is shot and United need a different type of player in midfield, especially as in the current plight they cannot afford any passengers. However, what has become of him was to some extent not his own doing – ill-timed injuries; playing under two managers who favoured systems focused on central solidity with little scope for ambition; and the abuse from fans, all undoubtedly affected him. He is a good, hard-working professional who can at least leave having captained United; even though it was on a pre-season tour, this was something he was incredibly proud of.

The victories as a younger player to overcome injuries and being small, the loan successes and the bright start in the first team were no fluke. I hope he isn’t damaged beyond repair and that his new manager can coax some of the old Cleverley back again. If they do, he’ll be back in the England team before long and United fans may just wonder what could have been if it wasn’t for Kevin Davies or if style had been favoured over substance and functionality in a midfield supplemented by better (or indeed any) signings.

Finally, those rejoicing at his departure have lost sight of what their football club represents. For all United’s success, it is the ability to bring players through from the academy to first team that is the most long-standing. On this basis, Tom Cleverley is a great success who, in different circumstances, could have had a career as a squad player at United for a long time, following the likes of O’Shea, Brown, Fletcher etc in recent years – players who have been key to the success that supporters demand. As it stands, he has ironically followed the same United career path as Darron Gibson, the man whose place in the squad he took; promising youngster that the fans want to see involved, turned scapegoat, forced off social media by said fans and whose exit is widely celebrated. A player who has been at the club for fourteen years deserves better than that.

Many thanks to @KarateJesus82 for helping to edit this!

14 Comments on Why Tom Cleverley failed to fulfil his potential at United…

  1. Excellent as always Doron! I really hope TC can rediscover his confidence! I actually wish he could read this as I can imagine it reminding him of his capabilities. Let’s hope Paul Lambert will get him back on track.

  2. I am a united fan, i luv TC,remenbr his curling goal, jst lik that Ashley young use to score, i remenber wondring to myslf if dis is the same Tc, he is got it in him, jst dat d confidance is low. Hp villa works for him.Goodluck Tom.

  3. Yes I also believe having watched the game that Kevin Davies killed Tom Cleverley, sad but the fact he seems to have limped on for so long a passenger is really bad management and needed to be addressed, he isn’t the only one, has Valencia been half the player since he sanapped his leg against Rangers? Do Smalling and Jones seem to go off with the slightest knock or strain… Infact add rafael to that, will Fletcher ever be able to grab a game by the scruff of the neck again like he did against Arsenal in the champions league semi final? Would Wellbeck have ever just got his head over the ball and hit it? You could go on and on with thus squad, it’s ok Mike Phelan saying the heart and sole has been ripped out of the club but these players weren’t good enough, they where never going to be Giggs Scholes and Beckham, tbh they have done well to last so long and it isn’t coincidence that the team looks stale and uninspiring, I talk to an old guy who used to be around UTD a few years back and he said that Cleverley and Wellbeck where not that good as kids, but they used to suck up, stay behind and help out and so probably got better chances than they should, as a utd fan I will always cherish a really good player coming through the ranks than someone bought in and it’s going to be sad at the end of the season when we probably let Fletcher go, but we need to raise the standard on that pitch, there are big shoes to fill and long shadows to eclipse, the majority of the current squad have had the chance and come up short, only the papering over cracks that a fit and raring Van Persie provided stopped this decline happening sooner.

  4. Never knew this much abt Tom but wish him all the best at his new club. Really hope lambert can help us get him back in shape

  5. Spot on mate. I hope that cleverly reads the whole article. And i hope that our fans focus on the last paragraph of the article.
    Nice finishing sentence: “A player who has been at the club for fourteen years deserves better than that.”

  6. I do genrally wish Tom the best, my only gripe is he never covered himself in glory on deadline day, refusing to move permanently because he wasnt getting the same wage, no doubt United are paying a portion of his wage at Villa, sad times that a player would rather not play as long as hes on more money. Their was a brilliant article in the daily mail today which pointed out what would an 11 year old Clev who drempt of playing in the PL think of his actions yesterday

  7. Spot on as always Doron. I seriously hope he regains his confidence and have a good loan spell, improving meanwhile under the likes of Keane. I know its a one in a million shot, but seriously hope United dont sell him. Will never forget Cleverly for the beauty he produced at the Community Shield…all the criticism was harsh and shattered his confidence. All the best for your future Cleviesta.

  8. Utter nonsense. Many players have been injured by tackles and have come back just as good. Cleverly never has the mentality of a united player and that can only be his fault.

    We have tried too hard to produce youth for the first team to the extent of promoting second rate youngsters in the hope they come good. Im happy this has finally come to an end. The sale of Tom Lawrence signaling only the highest calibre of youth will be promoted.

    United does not own these kids anything. Neither is their success our priority. United is first and foremost about winning and if a player isn’t good enough he should be gotten rid of without an after thought.

    The test should always be whether said player would have been bought had he been at another club. Given that test all the eulogising of Danny Welbeck just looks silly. Not good enough to be a top class winger not good enough to be a top class forward. Easy decision then, get rid of him.

  9. Showed early promise a couple seasons ago. Got a couple injuries and hasn’t been the same player since. Came back and had his chances…plenty of them. Van gaal gave the lad his chance…even made him captain for a game on pre season tour. He didn’t perform. Hasn’t produced. Confidence looks shot. Couldn’t even do the basics right the last couple times he’s been given a run out. Gets bullied off the ball and his passings been bloody shambolic – and that was 1 of his better aspects of his game. Given the ball away far too often and not strong enough to play cm for a club like United. He’s just not been good enough. In fact – he’s been awful! Simple as that.

    Good luck to him at villa though. Hopefully things work out for him there and he can get his career back on track but there’s no chance he’ll have a future at United. Cheers tom lad

  10. thanks god he is gone. he was an utter embarrassment for united – the way he avoided 50/50 balls was really embarrassing to watch, for the money he payd he just simply wasnt doing his job..the bigger los to me is welbeck , but also cant complain too much on this one as we got falcao..

  11. Superb article. Agree with most of it, especially the part relating to him handing responsibility to others. For some reason Tom’s technical ability has pretty much deserted him in the final third while at United. His finishing has been awful, while he has occasionally managed a good cross then doesn’t even attempt another for 4 matches.

    If you went back through Darren Fletcher’s years at United, in the early days as a first team player, he was another who didn’t feel confident enough to make things happen, unless the established midfield players were missing from the side.

    I think you could make a decent case that Danny Welbeck was also reluctant to take players on (given his pace), shoot from distance, put in crosses when a short passing option was available.

  12. Yep TC was made a scapegoat unfairly but he was never going to be more than a bit player at UTD. We have enough of them at the moment and LVG is right to cull the squad where Moyes dallied.

    Yep we need some bit part players but a focus on utter quality is required at the moment.

    Maybe the movement of TC, DW, and the rest will give the next generation room to kick on and come through the ranks.

    Do u remember who Beckham, Scholes . Butt and Biggs replaced? No cos they weren’t good enough.

    Time will tell if youth is still given a chance but moving players is not am indication that United’s ways have changed

  13. I’ll have to be brutally frank in saying that I was one of his earliest critics back then. A look towards the past, however, would betray a worrying trend afflicting NOT just him, but also plenty more others like him.

    All the while, I always believed him to be a technically good player. This opinion still stands now. Tactically wise, it seems that his movement do get pilloried 9 out of 10 times. When the press hailed him as the next Paul Scholes, that’s arguably when he took the dive in ways more than just one. One thing about the English press culture is this: The press enjoys elevating and breaking you at the same time. Cleverley is definitely a living example of worst-case circumstances.

    At the same time, the lad also didn’t do himself any favour via the TC23 brand. He claimed that this was done in the name of charity, but I doubt the critics actually cared. On a major hindsight, the TC23 issue was nothing less than a PR nightmare regardless of what his apologists would say otherwise.

    Lastly, but not least (and I know every Utd fans will hammer this neutral fan for this) will be Sir Alex Ferguson. Don’t get me wrong. The old knight himself has AND will always be a larger than life legend. Sadly, he’s only human and humans make mistakes. I firmly believe that by insisting on a Carrick-Cleverley partnership, the old knight had unwittingly doomed the lad. Carrick is a player in charge of holding down possession, which was why Cleverley had always been playing in his mental comfort zone. Without the assurance given by Ferguson, he endured a nightmarish run under Moyes. Gary Neville once famously said in one Utd’s match analysis that Cleverley should be doing a risk pass. Which actually says a lot on people asking why he always passes the ball sideways or backwards. At the end of the day, either he needs to polish up his tactical awareness (truly the most worrying scenario) or he needs to fortify himself mentally (basically something Martinez had subtly hinted when he leapt to the lad’s defence).

    Conclusion: Only TC23 can revive TC23. What the lad needs now is to cast off every single detail of his past. Let the press be damned, let his past accomplishments be damned. He must understand that by going on loan, he’s being given a new chance to start anew. Lambert is known as a no-nonsense bloke, which is why Cleverley must realise whatever indulgence given to him last time round will NOT work at Villa Park.

  14. Don’t really buy the scapegoat argument.

    During United’s decline the past couple of years, the lack of creativity from midfield was distinct. Young, Nani, Anderson and even Valencia were not spared criticism for their lack of adventure and thrust. Many fans would gladly see the backs of Young and Anderson. Valencia has been all too predictable (defenders know he can’t wait to get to the byline) and seems satisfied to just get most of his crosses blocked for corners. The truth is, these players, together with Moyes, were all targeted for being clearly out of their depth, and rightly so.

    United’s decline started after the exciting era of Tevez, Rooney and Ronaldo. Only carried on winning due to 1) SAF’s genius 2) the old guard (Scholes, Giggs, Vidic) stemming the rot and 3)RVP’s brilliance. The departure of Ronaldo, SAF, Scholes and Giggs exposed the mediocre players left in the team. The fact that these players continued to start week in week out throughout last season drew the ire of fans.

    Never understood the focus on youth tradition as well, especially Mike Phelan’s recent remarks on Welbeck’s sale. There was only one group of players (Class of 92) that really came through from the academy and only a couple (Giggs and Scholes, maybe Beckham and Gnev) could be considered world-class. Not much of a tradition there.

    For Welbeck’s case, besides not being in the same class as Falcao, it was SAF and his team who decided to bring in RVP (rightly so) and forced Welbeck out wide on the occasions he played. He never had the finishing skills for a striker, and never got a decent run of games to hone them.

    Ironically, the one that was really world-class (Pogba) slipped away under SAF’s reign. Can’t blame fans for looking at that starting line-up w Cleverley and thinking what could have been.

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