Tom Cleverley has all the attributes for midfield success
With the greatest respect to Manchester United’s US tour opponents, it would difficult to draw any incisive conclusions from their four successive wins pre-Barcelona friendly – where they tallied an impressive 18 goals – because the opposition were simply abject and below standard. However, a match up against the side that they had been routinely beaten by in the Wembley final in May would be far more educative – and despite both teams not opting for full-strength, the level of quality on the pitch would have considerably improved to United’s previous games.
And so it is mildly encouraging – heck, very – that Sir Alex immediately labelled Tom Cleverley as “our best player tonight”, one who “physically, isn’t the strongest lad but he’s wily and has a great idea of the game.” It is still possible that United will add to their squad and invest in a new central midfielder, which would be logical as they’re currently lacking in options, but the consensus regardless is that Cleverley is finally ready for promotion into the first team squad. He should be a prominent figure even if there were to be a new addition to the side.
Yesterday, at the curiously named FedEx Field in Washington, the Basingstoke-born midfielder delivered as Manchester United triumphed 2-1. Cleverley’s performance suggested he had all the attributes to direct him to success and it was his wily interception from a Sergio Busquets pass – then assist – which allowed Michael Owen to net the winner. It was a moment of brilliance; he read the situation well and having won the ball, found Owen with a measured pass which he duly finished.
He was able to impose himself in the game, despite Barcelona monopolising the ball for large parts. Displaying his prowess, he made six tackles (winning four) more than any other player on the pitch but for all his sharp passing throughout, there were times where he did lack concentration and misplaced a few (According the OPTA, his pass completion rate was a decent 80%). Still, he was rightfully recognised as Man of the Match and this, as Fergie says, is “crucial because with Paul Scholes retiring and Darren Fletcher still recovering from his virus it’s an area we have to find a solution for.”
It might be a touch unfair to give him so much responsibility; indeed, many are quick to point out that not a single player would be capable of filling the void left by Scholes but that isn’t what Cleverley should be focusing on. They have their similarities but United have to make sure that Scholes isn’t missed and instead accept that they may need to adjust to a different shape in midfield rather than trying to mould another Scholes-like player. Certainly, he and Anderson showed yesterday that, in a two-man midfield, you don’t necessarily need a holding player or somebody who has been given a specific job. The duo shared the workload and found the perfect balance between defence and attack.
Unsurprisingly, Barcelona controlled the majority of possession; OPTA note that they made 61 more passes than in the Champions League final (838) but United’s midfield duopoly made sure it didn’t result in a drubbing this time around. And when United did have the ball, they were far more impressive. Ashley Young and Nani looked dangerous on either flank while Danny Welbeck looked assured behind Wayne Rooney. But it was Cleverley who stole the show: “His discipline was terrific, he’s a good passer, he has good eyes. He’s a big possibility to start for us at the start of the season,” Sir Alex added post-match. United have a player here who is not only tactically astute, but is robust in the challenge and can spot a pass. There are reasons to be excited.
Having spent time on loan at three different clubs in as many seasons, there would have surely been reasons for frustration – but now, he’s almost definitely ready. His loan spells at Leicester, Watford and Wigan have, however, seen him get progressively better and it was his most previous bout with the Latics which really caught the eye in the same way Jack Wilshere did for Bolton – before he went on to enjoy a magnificent season for Arsenal. Cleverley’s task this campaign is to do similar.