Smart money on Cleverley justifying the hype at Man Utd
During the 1995 FA Cup final between Everton and Manchester United, the peerless BBC commentator Barry Davies went on a slightly strange riff, during which he announced that a number of United players were aptly named. With Roy Keane and Lee Sharpe the point was obvious, although Nicky Butt took a bit of explaining (“he joins things, brings one sentence to an end and starts another”).
It’s fair to assume Davies could have done something with Tom Cleverley. In the past year, Cleverley has emerged as a vital player in the futures of Manchester United and England. After an excellent international against Italy on Wednesday, even Keane, the harshest of judges, said he was “outstanding”, commenting specifically on his awareness and football intelligence. Cleverley, it seems, is aptly named.
“He is a very clever footballer,” said Sir Alex Ferguson last year. “He has got a quick brain in terms of appreciation of passing.” Ferguson used another word to describe Cleverley, one that was also chosen by Roberto Martínez, his coach during a loan spell at Wigan in 2010-11. Both men concur that Cleverley is “special”.
He could be the man to legitimate Ferguson’s ostensibly unfathomable reluctance to buy a central midfielder. Ferguson certainly thinks so; he has described him as “probably the best midfield player in Britain, potentially”. While it borders on sacrilege to suggest, as some have, that he is the new Paul Scholes, it would be equally remiss not to recognise certain similarities. Although Cleverley’s long passing is nowhere near the Scholes class, his short game is excellent: simple, progressive and urgent. A high proportion of his passes are first-time and he is relentlessly mobile, with and without the ball. A game never sits still when Cleverley is on the pitch. This is particularly important at United, where all of Ferguson’s great sides have had one thing in common: a high-tempo passing game.
In his short Premier League career, Cleverley has achieved the Scholes Standard – a pass-completion ratio in excess of 90 per cent – and, like Scholes, he is extremely comfortable receiving possession under pressure. In fact, he likes it that way: watch how often Cleverley waves his hands to demand the ball, even if an opponent is in close proximity to his derriere.
Cleverley has started only five league games for United, yet there is an argument – not entirely absurd – that, aside from Nemanja Vidic, he is the most important player at the club this season. He was integral in United’s remarkable start to last season, when they put 11 past Spurs and Arsenal in six giddy August days. Overall, he has played 751 minutes for United in all competitions (eight and a bit games); in that time, United have scored 24 and conceded seven. In the 10 league games in which Cleverley has appeared, United have won nine and lost one. The sample size is too small for us to hail him as the new messiah, but he is clearly doing something right.
“Tom, for me, is without question so good that he is the best young player at United since Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham came on to the scene,” says Eric Harrison, the youth coach who brought through that most golden of generations. Yet unlike Scholes, Giggs and even Darren Fletcher, he was not earmarked for the top from a young age. Cleverley has had to work desperately hard at every stage of his career, chiefly to ensure he would not become one of the thousands telling their grandchildren they were on the books at Old Trafford as a kid.
Cleverley has been on loan three times and has overcome myriad setbacks: shoulder surgery on loan at Leicester; a knee problem at Watford; and the constant injury woe of last season. “There were times during the season when I thought I was the unluckiest footballer in the world.” His misfortune was not confined to injury. When he was set to make his England debut in August 2011, the game was cancelled because of the London riots.
Yet, whatever happens to him, Cleverley returns with puppy-dog enthusiasm. He shares his idol Beckham’s determination and fearlessness. In the summer of 2011, when he still hadn’t made his first-team debut, Cleverley was picked for a pre-season friendly against Barcelona. A friendly, yes, but a terrifyingly big deal for a kid pitched in against Thiago Alcantara, Seydou Keita and the master, Andrés Iniesta, who in two Champions League finals had almost sent more-experienced United midfielders to the psychiatrist’s couch. Cleverley made the winner and was, according to Ferguson, United’s man of the match.
When he had made his full debut a couple of weeks earlier, Cleverley came on at half-time, with United 2-0 down to Manchester City. He bounded straight into the game and starred as United came back to win 3-2. Cleverley’s quick passing created a gorgeous equaliser for Nani and, at one stage, Yaya Touré said to him, “please, just leave me alone”. His first touch on his England debut was a deliciously cocky feint to deceive Daniele de Rossi. He was punished for his impudence with a fierce challenge from behind by De Rossi. Cleverley took the hit without complaint, got to his feet and demanded the ball again.
As well as his class in possession, Cleverley’s character sets him apart. “Tom Cleverley is a player you need to work with to understand the full package,” said Martínez. “The mentality he’s got is quite unique. He’s a winner.” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, his former reserve-team coach at United, calls him “a top-quality player and a top-quality human being. There are talented players and then players like Tom, who have everything.”
Malky Mackay, who managed him at Watford, described Cleverley as “determined, single-minded and focused on being as good as he could be”. Unless injury gets in his way, the smart money is on Cleverley becoming very good indeed.
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