Hailed as the next Paul Scholes when he burst onto the scene with an emphatic display against FC Barcelona in our pre-season tour of the States in 2011, Tom Cleverley had a promising breakthrough season marred by injuries. This season, once he returns from the Olympics, the 22 year old midfielder will be hoping to make a bigger impact on the first eleven with his intricate style of play.
After a successful loan spell at Wigan Athletic in the 2010/11 season, Cleverley returned to Old Trafford and immediately struck up an exciting relationship with Anderson in central midfield after Paul Scholes‘ retirement. However, this partnership was clearly too porous for Sir Alex’s liking and was disbanded by defensive worries and cruel injuries, leaving the Englishman to make only 15 appearances in all competitions.
Despite making so few appearances last season, United fans were certainly given a taste of what Tom Cleverley was about on the pitch, with a run of promising performances from the Academy graduate. A technically gifted footballer, his link up play with the forward line is superb and he seems to thrive playing short, sharp passes with the likes of Nani and Welbeck. Promoting a fluent, Barcelona-esque passing style, Cleverley endeared himself to the Old Trafford faithful with his fun, attacking football.
“Tom Cleverley, physically, isn’t the strongest lad but he’s wily and he has a great idea of the game.” Sir Alex
However, his timid figure means he is a very lightweight option without the ball, shown by how he didn’t win a single aerial duel all season. When United have the ball, this is not a problem, but when Cleverley is expected to play as a central midfielder in a classic 4-4-2 formation, without the ball, then he can struggle with the physical aspect of the game. Nonetheless, he can bulk up his 5ft 8″ frame and certainly improve this aspect of his game.
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With the arrival of Shinji Kagawa to Manchester United this season, Sir Alex may look to implement a 4-2-3-1 system to accommodate the talented Japanese midfielder. Playing him either through the middle, if he hits the ground running, or slightly to the left of the front three, whilst he adjusts to the pace of the Premier League, Kagawa’s arrival will restrict Cleverley’s opportunities to play in his favoured central attacking midfield role. Therefore, he may be asked to play alongside Carrick and Scholes behind the front four, but this could be risky considering the added defensive responsibility placed on the two holding midfielders in this formation.
Cleverley must be hoping that Sir Alex decides to utilise a 4-3-3 shape, as it would give him the opportunity to occupy a wide central role, like he did during his 31 appearances at Wigan Athletic in 10/11, and exert his creative influences more fluently. However, Sir Alex is more likely to mould his team around the likes of Rooney, Kagawa and Valencia than a relatively inexperienced and unknown youngster, leaving Cleverley with no clear path into the starting eleven, even if he manages to avoid injury this time round.
Sir Alex though is always keen to bring through Academy products and will have been impressed with the way he once again surprised many with his progression to the first team. Despite this, the Old Trafford faithful are still yearning for a new midfield signing. Yohan Cabaye is one such player that has caught many people’s eyes, and Aaron Ramsey was of course coveted by Sir Alex before he signed for Arsenal. It must be acknowledged that Cleverley played a lot less minutes than the pair of them and therefore his stats are somewhat less reliable, although they do make for an interesting comparison.
To begin with, all three players are creative and one key recognition of their productivity in this respect is their assists. Interestingly, despite having the highest average positon on the pitch, Ramsey was the least productive midfielder in this respect, despite working behind the League’s top scorer last season in Robin Van Persie. In comparison, Cabaye’s assists from outside the box were vital to Newcastle’s success, as his great touch allowed them to exploit teams on the break. Statistically, it is hard to make any conclusions on Tom’s three assists during the season (1 PL, 1 CC, 1 CS in total), as even though his one solitary PL assist still meant he had a better assist rate than the two more experienced players, his actual chance creation was relatively poor, suggesting he was preferring to play it safe, rather than attempting to make that killer pass.
Defensively, Cleverley did surprisingly well with his tackling, winning more than half his attempts, but considering he played most of the season without a more defensive minded midfielder around him (unlike Cabaye/Tiote, Ramsey/Song), then his frequency of tackles was very poor and helps explain why our defence was so vulnerable during his time in the middle. To add to that, he didn’t even compensate for this with a high quantity of interceptions as he made one only every 93.4 minutes, as opposed to Cabaye’s rate of one every 33.2 minutes.
More positively, Cleverley was very tidy with the ball last season, particularly in the final third where he seems a lot more composed and patient than his two peers. It is this efficiency which players such as Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta implement so well in their tika-taka football, but before Cleverley can demand a place in the first team, he is going to have to add some end product to his tidyness as his defensive weakness needs to be compensated more by his attacking abilities.
Final 1/3 Pass %
Tackles Won %
Mins/ Chance Created
Overall, Cleverley had an intriguing first full season in the first team. Cruelly struck short by injury (Kevin Davies), fans’ overwhelming memories were of his positive attacking impetus at the start of the season. During the Community Shield, his play was scintilatting and we sorely missed his creativity at times, but he never stuck around long enough post-injury to really highlight his bad patch of form in the second half of the season, leaving many to remember a romanticised version of his season. Therefore, the 2012/13 season is crucial, as it could easily define whether he becomes a regular in the squad or fails to fulfil his September ’11 promise and follows the well worn path of previous Academy graduates to a healthy living in a mid table Premier League midfield.