It is difficult to articulate a description which would suitably clarify the purpose of Manchester United’s Tom Cleverley. He’s not a deep-lying playmaker, nor a box-to-box or holding outlet. He doesn’t possess conventional attacking prowess (despite sometimes playing in a somewhat advanced position) and he is not one to outmuscle opposition with his strength or impose on midfielders with a towering presence.
He has, however, starred in 38 league games for United and appeared as a regular England international, notching 11 caps, ultimately contributing towards a Premier League title and World Cup qualification. Having said that, the midfielder’s position had been subject to scrutiny following the arrival of Marouane Fellaini and, considering the ambiguous nature of his role at United, it would seem his future is uncertain.
In December 2011, Sir Alex Ferguson asserted that the England international was ‘probably one of the best midfielders in Britain‘. Roy Hodgson even compared him to Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas. David Moyes’ appointment, however, prompted speculation about Tom’s future after the new manager had been made aware by the club that their midfield needed bolstering, which essentially suggested that Cleverley’s formed partnership with Michael Carrick would not be sufficient for long-term glory.
In the summer, Fellaini appeared as an expected acquisition for the United midfield. He offered physical presence, a quality that added a new element to the fore. However, following his arrival he hasn’t managed to justify his £27.5 million fee, raising questions not only regarding his suitability but also as to whether Cleverley poses as a viable option in lieu of the adapting Belgian.
In his post-match press conference, Moyes and Jonny Evans had described their performance against Southampton as sloppy as they allowed Mauricio Pochettino’s men to control the game. In the last 15 minutes with a 1-0 lead, Fellaini was substituted and replaced by Ryan Giggs in the centre of the park, presumably because the Belgian had struggled with Southampton’s movement and intensity.
Moreover, Fellaini stumbled against stronger opposition at Manchester City in The Etihad Stadium, a match which saw a lack of concentration leading up to two City goals from Sergio Agüero and Yaya Touré. Throughout most of the game, it seemed as though the Belgian couldn’t get near the opposition and had difficulty retaining possession whilst, in contrast, Cleverley’s eventual introduction increased the vigour of United’s play which left City weathering a storm for the rest of the encounter – but by then it was too late.
An element to United’s style that they have struggled to replicate this season is a fierce intensity in their pressing and passing, qualities which have been exhibited by dominant teams like Bayern Munich in recent years. Opposing teams have often managed to grab a foothold in a game and tested United to the point where a slender lead would seem gratifying.
If we consider Cleverley’s tenacity, work rate and passing as his strongest qualities, the table would struggle to clarify anything that we didn’t already know. Having said that, the England international has managed to make 16 tackles in seven appearances for United, averaging 2.28 tackles per game which is more than any other United midfielder this season. Moreover, Cleverley’s passing statistics (90%), although not requisite to midfield superiority, demonstrate his capacity to play the ball quickly and accurately.
Fellaini, on the other hand has mustered five tackles in five appearances which is comparable to Anderson’s performances thus far. Similarly, although Fellaini’s passing stats (90%) are high, they don’t necessarily represent the fact that the Belgian has struggled to keep possession at times. These elements could either suggest that Fellaini is struggling to adapt, isn’t good enough or that Cleverley is a far more useful player when it comes to disrupting the opposition and keeping the ball.
This isn’t to say that Cleverley is the answer to United’s midfield problems. If we compare the midfielder with others that play in a similar position for rival teams competing in the top six, he doesn’t exhibit the quality that suggests he has what it takes to become a Paul Scholes or Cesc Fabregas. He doesn’t manifest guile based on his limited dribbles (1) and chances created (6), nor has he exemplified a much needed goal-scoring threat in a subdued midfield.
However, the midfielder has demonstrated that he could be a hugely useful option for United at least until January as he has shown a proficiency in retaining possession against rival teams such as Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, a facet to his game that Fellaini and others (bar Carrick) have not managed to display in the Premier League so far.
Fellaini is a player that has every possibility to step up his game and from a United perspective, hopefully that happens. His away performance against Real Sociedad in the Champions League showed signs of promise, even if he was sent off, prompting Moyes to suggest that his premature introduction to the United team had not given the Belgian enough time to settle, which could explain his lack of form.
Ultimately, it is probable that Cleverley may struggle to maintain a future at United should acquisitions such as Sami Khedira and Ander Herrera still be on the cards. However, if the England international does manage to stay fit and perform at a consistent rate, taking into consideration the lack of suitable midfield options at Moyes’ disposal, his performances thus far (notably away against Fulham and Sunderland) suggest that he has an important role to play for United and Moyes.