Match Preview. Crunch time came quickly for the England U21 squad as they faced up against a strong Czech Republic side tonight knowing that only a victory will secure their passage to the semi-final stage of the competition. Stuart Pearce had been strongly criticised for his team choice in the game against Ukraine but it looks like he fixed up in time as Tom Cleverley stepped back into the first team alongside newly captained Phil Jones in defence. The phrase ‘future England captain’ has already been touted with Jones so we’ll also have a look at how he played tonight. I am bloody glad that stubborn Pearce decided to drop the shoddy Mancienne after 2 rubbish performances because Cleverley now had another chance to show SAF just what he has got in his locker.
Group B fixture: England vs Czech Republic
Tom played on the right of a 4-2-3-1 formation with Sturridge and Sinclair alongside him but for quite a lot of the match, Sturridge and Cleverley showed great understanding as they kept switching positions in what was quite a fluid formation from England. They had the knowledge to know when to move into space and looked dangerous from the off as Sturridge lay off a weighted ball to let Cleverley whip in a dangerous cross that was unfortunately met by nobody. A long pass attempt to reach Welbeck in the 5th minute did not reach its intended target but the fact that he attempted such an audacious pass so early on in the game was a testament to his confidence as a player. An excellent show of good movement throughout the game, Cleverley and Sturridge continued to confuse their Czech counterparts and some great quick feet and passing as Tom moved more central allowed him to throw a lovely, cheeky lofted through ball to Welbeck. Something which Cleverley showed throughout his game was his range of passes: from quick interplay to whipped crosses and cross-field passes, Tom was showing exactly what he was capable of tonight. The best chance of the first 30 minutes also fell to Cleverley as great build-up play from England, which included some calm passing from Cleverley, led to a volley at the back post that Tom really should have got on target but it was still a great fluid move, something which England had been lacking in the tournament thus far. Special mention at this point will have to go to a show-boat moment from Chris Smalling as he took down a high ball to then drag the ball between 2 oncoming Czech players – he really has come into his own alongside Phil Jones in this tournament.
The second half continued in the same fashion as the first half for Tom as he kept his movement up in order to try and get the ball at his feet but something that has to get a mention is his corners. I mentioned it in my first post in this series and I will mention it again now. I think England had 6 or 7 corners today and Tom took all of them: not one of them hit the first man. It is such a simple manoeuvres in football yet so many professionals find it so hard to do but all of Cleverley’s deliveries in the tournament were spot on. If he could break into the first team next season and bring consistent set piece delivieries then Vidic’s goal against Chelsea from a corner might not be the rarity that it has become over the past few seasons. Long gone are the days when United were a constant threat from set-pieces and corners and I am sure everyone would agree with me if we could bring that back. After the shoddy Henderson was substituted for Lansbury, he brought more link up play into Cleverley’s game as the centre midfield moved up to support him and he looked a lot more comfortable in this central position. Not afraid of a tackle either, Cleverley got stuck in and tried to win the ball back to help retain possession.
Patience paid off for Pearce and his players as Sturridge whipped in a delicious cross for Welbeck to thump in a header at the near post to give England 1-0. After writing my piece as to whether Welbeck should be given a chance next season, he put in another great performance tonight to show SAF that he does have the potential to get first team experience. In what can only be described as a complete collapse, England then fell at the sword to 2 late Czech Republic goals and subsequently crashed out of the tournament with a 2-1 loss. From a United point of view however, this tournament has proved quite effective. We saw the first run out of the future United centre-back partnership of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling and all I can say is that it looks really, really good. They were head and shoulders the stand-out performers in what was quite a lazy looking England side, they were men against boys. Poise, confidence, composure and the mentality were there for all to see. A special mention also goes to Danny Welbeck as he came out of the tournament as England’s only goalscorer with 2 as he made the most of the few chances he received.
So, how did Tom Cleverley do in this tournament? I have to say that I was impressed with what he was able to do when he could. For me, however, Pearce played him in the wrong position for the majority of the tournament. I think he played his best football when he was central playing just behind the striker as seen at some points in the game against the Czech Republic, as he was able to use his good vision to slot out simple passes when necessary and add a bit of flair when he saw fit. He was able to play out on the wing and showed his versatility as a midfielder but we should take good note to the fact that his strength comes in the middle. The fact that he is a competent set piece taker is something that I didn’t know before watching this tournament and I hope that he continues to grow in this respect. There really are similarities between the irreplaceable Paul Scholes and Tom Cleverley, similarities that will hopefully lead to Cleverley getting the game time he deserves as he takes his place in the United squad next season, as long as SAF doesn’t loan him out again but I can’t see that happening considering how thin our midfield is. I am really looking forward to seeing what he can do for us next season as we look to secure our 20th Premier League title and give daylight between us and the Dippers.