Why Tom Cleverley is so important to Manchester United
It’s easy to categorise Manchester United’s natural central midfielders. Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes are passers – they sit in deep positions, control the tempo and spread the play. Anderson and Darren Fletcher are runners, or shuttlers – they provide energy and compete in a more combative manner.
Sir Alex Ferguson generally favours a passer and a runner. Two passers is certainly viable, though they depend upon energy from higher up the pitch, and can be overcome by powerful opposition. Two runners rarely works – the side lacks discipline and shape.
At least, that situation was true last season. This campaign, there is Tom Cleverley, who fits into neither category. He’s not a passer like Carrick or Scholes – he plays higher up, he’s more mobile, he’s more direct on the ball. But he’s not a runner like Anderson or Fletcher either – his technical quality is much greater, he’s creative, and his passing is more incisive.
So what is he? He appears to be something between a box-to-box player and a driving central midfielder, with an added touch of finesse. In that respect, it’s probably not appropriate to compare him to a past Man Utd player but instead include him in a group of similarly-aged players who possess similar attributes. Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere and Dortmund’s Sven Bender are comparable – they start deep in midfield but carry the ball forward to turn defence in to attack. And that might be the best description for Cleverley – a carrier.
This type of player has a crucial role to play in modern football, because of the importance coaches place on attacking transitions – the moment when a side wins the ball and can launch an attack quickly without resorting to pointless long balls (also known as verticality). Coaches want directness when the ball is won, an initial burst of pace and incision from the central midfield zone.
The good thing about this verticality is that it can cause the opposition problems, whether they want to press high up the pitch or sit very deep. If it’s the former, it’s possible to escape the first press. If it’s the latter, it’s possible to attack the defence before they have time to become settled and stabilised with two banks of four. Cleverley appears particularly talented, in that his verticality can come either from passing or dribbling with the ball.
There are just two question marks. The first is who to play him alongside. The passer-runner model worked well because the two types of players were completely different, so they complemented each other and formed a good relationship. If Cleverley is somewhere in-between, he doesn’t have a natural partner – when fielded alongside Anderson early in the season, United had lots of attacking thrust, but their shape was poor, and they were conceding more shots than any Premier League side. Cleverley alongside Scholes or Carrick seems more natural, but we’re yet to see this.
The second problem is fitness. Cleverley has only played nine times this season, and only twice for the duration of the game. Were it not for injuries, he would have made his England debut by now, and a place in the Euro 2012 squad is still not unthinkable. England will need that quality at transitions from either Cleverley or Wilshere, and the Manchester United player is currently in the better position to stake his claim.
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