Tom Cleverley made his first start in a United shirt tonight against Ajax since an injury sustained against Bolton in October has kept him out of the side. Tom was a major cog in the great start that United made to the season, striking an unexpected partnership with Anderson that was fruitful whilst it lasted. Unfortunately, injuries to both players begun a continuous cycle of change in our midfield that has stopped us cementing two first choice midfielders.
Tonight was the first chance to see Carrick and Cleverley playing alongside each other, something I have waited for. I think that, on paper, these two midfielders compliment each other more so than any other players we have in the squad. How would Tom do on his first United appearance since October?
An assured 60 minutes from Tom did him absolutely no harm. As early on as the ninth minute, he was finding his distances with a fantastic first time pass to release Young after a high ball dropped but it was a quiet start to the game that saw possession changing regularly.
What quickly established itself was that Cleverley played further forward in the midfield pairing than Carrick. This plays to the strengths of both players. Carrick’s positional sense and ability to break down opponents play means he is fantastic for protecting the defence, whilst Cleverley is allowed to drift forward into the hole and provide the incisive passing on the edge of the box. This meant that tonight Rooney did not have to drop so deep to try and get the moves going, which allowed him to dictate more of what went on in and around the Ajax box.
Carrick and Cleverley smoothly switched on occasions throughout the first half, the other drifting forward whilst being protected by his partner. Cleverley had good defensive positioning when necessary and was composed on the ball, nodding it back to De Gea in the 30th minute. He really has all the hallmarks of a complete midfielder – vision, temperament, composure and positional sense.
His best pass came in the 55th minute after he unleashed a ball to set Hernandez off down the wing but his fantastic passing in the game no doubt helped United achieve a 86.97% pass success rate in the 90 minutes. I don’t remember any of his passes going astray. He even showed his strength and determination as he chased back the Ajax frontman Bulykin and bullied him off the ball, despite being 12 inches shorter.
All in all, it was a great return performance by Tom. He was replaced on the 60 minute mark by Paul Scholes, the man everyone ultimately wants him to replace after he retires. Replacement isn’t an option with the irreplaceable Scholes but Cleverley will do himself no harm if he can build on the 60 minutes tonight and make a push to regain a starting berth in the run-in this season.