An act of genius or a slice of outrageous fortune? The strike which put the icing on the cake for Man United’s comprehensive 3-0 triumph at St. James Park on Sunday sparked much debate; but what cannot be disputed is the rise of Tom Cleverley, who is attempting to become a regular for both club and country. The Basingstoke-born midfielder – who has spent nearly half his life on United’s books – is desperate to make up for lost time, following a turbulent year which has been plagued by injuries.
It is easy to forget that the 23-year-old has only notched up 21 first team appearances for United, and only netted his first goal for the club less than a fortnight ago.
The central midfield problems that the club have endured in recent years have been debated to death in the media, in social networking sites and across various blogs. It would be blind loyalty to suggest problems don’t exist, but whenever an issue occurs within the squad at Old Trafford, it is commonly blown out of proportion. This is due to the intense – and somewhat unique – scrutiny that is enforced over all things Man United.
Sir Alex foresaw this upcoming potential glitch, and earmarked a number of players who would replace the ageing pair of Scholes and Giggs. He was not helped by two of his budding talents being led astray: Paul Pogba due to his agent and desire for instant money and fame, alongside Ravel Morrison, who despite a dazzling array of talent at his disposal, pissed it all up the wall due to his lunacy.
But these departures merely added to the headache Ferguson faced. One of his most trustworthy and dependable assets: Darren Fletcher, was forced into taking a prolonged break from the game. The industrious Scot was ruled out of action for ten months due to his suffering from ulcerative colitis. The problem was rapidly developing into a crisis, and it was exacerbated yet further by prolonged and consistent injuries to both Cleverley and Anderson. Ferguson had viewed Tom as Paul Scholes’ natural and home-grown replacement for upwards of two years; and it was his injury that prompted the end of Scholes’ brief retirement.
By this stage, it was becoming increasingly evident what had impressed the wily old Scot about Cleverley. Following an impressive two and a half years with the reserve side (in which he was often named as captain) he earned a loan spell at Leicester City, helping them on their way to the League 1 title. The following season he was farmed out to Watford; his goal tally for the year ran into double figures and he was rewarded with the club’s ‘Player of the Season’ award. Both these stints were ended a month prematurely, due to injuries to his shoulder (Leicester) and knee (Watford) – luck which has continued to blight his progress.
An impressive string of performances in United’s 2010 pre-season tour of North America led many to believe he would be in the first-team squad the following season, but Wigan snapped him up on a season-long loan deal. His first season in the Premiership was highly impressive; he showed both confidence and ability and made many finally sit up and take notice.
His exciting promise continued in the early stages of the following season, but this time it was at Old Trafford. Sir Alex described him as the ‘best player’ in a pre-season victory against reigning European champions Barcelona, and he once again excelled in the Community Shield against Man City, where he was involved in the superb passing move leading up to Nani’s equaliser.
That goal encapsulated what United’s early season form was all about: a youthful abandon 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. This was a dream for Tom, who’s quick-thinking and precise passing made sure the team flowed to perfection – providing assists and key passes regularly. But, as was the case in his first two loan spells, his fun and fine form was cut short due to a typically robust Kevin Davies challenge.
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.
However, 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.
Yet in all the anger and disappointment, Cleverley was forgotten about. The fans bemoaned a lack of investment in central midfield and the team in general. Five players were signed over the summer, but not one could be classified as a central midfielder. Complaints came that Michael Carrick was doing it all on his own, and that Paul Scholes could not perform effectively over a full ninety minutes anymore.
Quietly, Tom was getting back into the groove. He started all five games of Team GB’s short-lived existence, squashing doubts which lingered over his fitness, and being the team’s top performer in the process. He also earned his first England caps – excelling alongside Carrick in a fine 2-1 win in Italy, before starting both qualifying matches against Moldova and Ukraine. Manager Roy Hodgson lavished praise upon him, and this has improved his self-confidence which is bound to have been derailed by constant injury setbacks.
He took this fine summer form into this season – scoring his first goal for the club in the League Cup against Newcastle, before scoring against the same opposition with a belter this weekend. Having waited eleven years to score his first United goal, two came in quick succession.
His partnership with Michael Carrick is one that is worth analysing more closely. The two really complement each other effortlessly, their passing and movement is a joy to behold, adding zip and zest to a side which has been criticised of becoming stale and complacent.
This is a partnership which, despite its qualities, can hamper the Red Devils, especially in away matches. The one weakness is a lack of strength – the squad lacks a player in the ‘Roy Keane’ mould, or to put it more blunt: a bully. United fans have craved a signing in the style of Yaya Toure, Fellaini or Dembele, but this was not forthcoming. The closest United have to this type of battling midfielder is a toss-up between Fletcher and Anderson, and doubts still linger over the fitness of both.
However, Ferguson believes he has a variation of possible solutions. On Sunday, he deployed Wayne Rooney in midfield to give that injection of strength and energy to complement the skill and fluency of Carrick and Cleverley, in a 4-3-3 formation. Rooney was man-of-the-match as United put in their most impressive display of the campaign to date. Sir Alex also sacrificed width in the League Cup win over Newcastle, playing both Fletcher and Anderson alongside Tom to combat the physicality the Geordies offered in the shape of Tiote.
The Carrick-Cleverley partnership is one that must be allowed to blossom, but it may mean sacrificing Ferguson’s beloved 4-4-2 formation and wide-play, especially in games away from home. With an embarrassment of riches in attack, Rooney may make one of the midfield positions his own. The emerging Nick Powell has also been earmarked by the boss to fit into such a role.
Cleverley needs to steer clear of the injuries that have hampered his fledgling career. If he does, exciting times lie ahead of both United and England. He could be the answer to Fergie’s midfield dilemma and he could ensure that England’s finest player of this generation, and close friend of Cleverley’s, drops back into midfield permanently. It will be less revolution, and more evolution, but current signs point toward an exciting future for both Tom and United.