The potential arrival of Thiago Alcantara at Manchester United is one of the most hotly anticipated moves from fans in a long time. Could United really be signing a midfielder after years of seeing the current squad struggle against the European elite? The signs are certainly there but while his arrival presents the solution for many fans, it wouldn’t be welcomed by everybody in the squad.
With Moyes likely to persist with the use of wingers in a 4-4-2 template, Tom Cleverley could find his game time restricted given that Thiago would only arrive at the club safe in the knowledge that his game time was guaranteed.
It was not so long ago that a young, exciting trio of central midfielders promised to safeguard the future of Manchester United and collect the baton which would inevitably be handed over by Scholes and Giggs.
They had pioneered United’s impressive route to FA Youth Cup success in 2011 and appeared to provide Sir Alex Ferguson with his answer for free-spending rivals Manchester City and Chelsea – to promote from within.
The unpredictable world of football ensured that the futures of Ravel Morrison, Paul Pogba and Ryan Tunnicliffe did not unfold as United would have hoped.
Morrison’s crippling off-field problems persuaded United that his raw talent was outweighed by his potential collateral damage, while Pogba was also led astray – persuaded that his future would be better served at Italian champions Juventus. Tunnicliffe’s career – while still at United – has stagnated and he was charged for drink-driving by Greater Manchester Police in October last year.
United’s central midfield since has been a puzzle which Ferguson ran out of time to resolve with Michael Carrick’s immense presence and injury-free run has been the only saving grace.
Scholes retired (again), Darren Fletcher is heading into further ulcerative colitis surgery following 18 months of ongoing problems, Giggs was never suited to the position while Anderson never progressed as was hoped.
The player relied on the most to help Carrick alleviate these issues was youth product Tom Cleverley. Following impressive loan spells in the lower divisions and at Wigan Athletic, he burst onto the scene prior to the 2011/12 campaign.
Ferguson described him as the ‘best player’ in a pre-season victory against reigning European champions Barcelona and after he tore Manchester City apart in the Community Shield against City, hopes were high for Cleverley.
That Nani goal in the Community Shield encapsulated what United’s early season form was all about – a youthful abandonment of caution as free-flowing attacking football reigned. Quick passing and movement was the name of the game as United ripped opposition defences to shreds.
It was a dream situation for Tom whose quick-thinking and precise passing made sure the team flowed to perfection but his fine form was cut short due to a typically robust Kevin Davies challenge that ended up being the beginning of the end of his season.
He returned after a month in time to take the trip to Goodison Park and his man-of-the-match performance was widely praised by all, including his manager, who had believed he had been capable all along. Again, he linked defence with attack seamlessly and ensured a commendable 1-0 win at a notoriously tricky venue.
But his injury curse struck again. Appearances throughout the rest of the season were sparse and United’s midfield often got bullied out of games. The team often appeared disjointed, not being able to simultaneously offer an attacking threat whilst being solid at the back. A season which had started with so much promise ended in heartbreak for both player and club.
The following campaign saw Cleverley make his mark at international level with Hodgson playing him in every England game since England’s exit from Euro 2012 and he made 32 appearances for United as they regained their league title with relative ease.
Cleverley’s job is one that is often unheralded. He is not the box-to-box energetic dynamo, nor is he particularly gifted in the art of retaining the ball whilst controlling the pace and tempo of the game. His main attributes lie in his positional play, his ability to break up the game whilst ensuring his side can counter swiftly. In many ways he is the perfect foil to the class of the omnipresent Carrick.
Despite many impressive displays, the young midfielder’s season waned in a similar fashion to his side’s dip in form. His performances from February onwards appeared lethargic and drained of energy. Again, this coincided with United’s loss of tempo and ruthlessness as they temporarily lost their mojo before regaining their title.
Looking ahead at this season, Thiago’s arrival would put him in direct competition with Cleverley at the club and with both looking for game time to secure their spots in their respective international squads, someone is going to be left disappointed.