What’s interesting is Rooney and, more frequently, Jones have been used in the engine room at a crucial period of the season, two players from opposite ends of the pitch shifting positions to fill a hole in the centre (three if you count Giggs moving there occasionally from the wing).
The focus has often been on the effectiveness of those players in the role, but the greater issue stems from the reason they were deployed there in the first place. For a team of United’s standing, using makeshift central midfielders illustrates how the lack of quality in the centre has not been addressed in the manner it should have.
With Fletcher and Scholes unavailable, and Powell still developing, the onus should fall squarely on either Cleverley or Anderson to provide the solution alongside Carrick. Anderson, for all his promise, sadly feels like a lost cause now, injury and inconsistency being the hallmarks of his Old Trafford career. The fact he failed to even make the bench for the last few games suggests he may as well retrieve his suitcase from the loft now.
So we turn to Tom Cleverley. Prior to the last couple of months, he had become an important part of the team, cementing his place next to Carrick in the majority of the key matches. He played well for most of that period, and obviously has plenty of potential, yet over the season he has failed to fully convince, exemplified by his omission in recent weeks.
It’s a strange situation. When he was in his best form before Christmas, it was probably the most balanced and positive the midfield has looked for some time, yet even then there still seemed to be something lacking at the heart of the team. It’s an issue that prompts the question: is Cleverley really the answer?
Part of the problem is he’s ‘one of our own’. The tradition of young players coming through the ranks is one that still chimes with United fans, an immediate affinity felt with the player and a real desire to see them succeed. It is part of the fabric of the club but often with such players we afford them extra leniency, leaning towards a softer critical analysis of their game, forgiving mistakes and becoming carried away by promising moments.
Although this honeymoon period only lasts so long – it’s fair to say Danny Welbeck’s has expired for some people for instance – Cleverley continues to receive a favourable reaction from most United fans. Only in recent times questions are starting to be asked how deserved that is.
He’s certainly improved since last year. Though he formed a brief but devastating partnership with Anderson at the start of last season, he struggled after Christmas when he returned from injury. In this campaign – and in the first few months in particular – his development has been far more significant, taking responsibility in midfield at a time when Scholes was finding age is finally catching up with him.
Cleverley’s greatest asset is the quick, sharp passing game he prompts. His game is built around speed. Not raw pace to burst past a player but speed of thought and feet – quickly moving the ball to another player, often on the half-turn, retaining possession whilst maintaining a tempo to the play. It’s why he is most effective higher up the pitch, his rapid exchanges and movement unsettling defences. In some ways, his game seems simple and obvious – there’s rarely a moment of trickery, or an unexpected pass to slice a defence open, at least not yet – but it’s his speed of thought that’s crucial. Watch any top European midfielder for a while (and this is in no way a comparison of ability) and their greatest asset is often their simplest one – moving the ball swiftly and adroitly.
Achieved at pace and with accuracy, it’s a skill that is often under-estimated. How many players do we see take an extra touch and the chance of a pass or shot is gone? Defenders back in position? Swiftly recycling the ball from player to player – and never for the sake of it, but with purpose too – is not only great to watch, but very effective.
If that’s his greatest strength, there’s a clear area of his game that needs improvement. For an attacking midfielder, his goal return is disappointing. He has the ability – his finish at West Ham in the FA Cup was sublime for instance. In the second half of that game, he was presented with an even better opportunity but skied it; the two incidents perfectly both illustrating his promise and highlighting an area that needs working on.
One reason he has maybe never quite convinced could be the lack of strength and power he brings to the midfield, something it feels like we are lacking at times (hence playing Jones there). Cleverley is busy, tenacious and combative, but his size will never help him dominate. The main concern though is his stamina.
In the first half of games, he offers energy and enthusiasm, but as the match wears on, so does he. The second half of games often see him fade into the background, meaning his overall contribution is often viewed as good but nothing special. He rarely lets us down but he rarely lifts us up either – he needs to find a way to stop his impact diminishing at the match progresses. It’s a problem with our midfield: Anderson looks out of breath after an hour, Cleverley simply looks out of the game.
People will point to his age as a factor, and his ongoing development, but, at 23, he is not particularly young. You would hope at that age such issues would not present themselves, certainly not on such a regular basis. The fact Sir Alex has chosen not to rely on him at such a crucial period of the season is testament to how he has run out of steam, and hopefully next season it’s something he’ll correct.
I hope he does, for he brings something different to our midfield, but there are hints he will become more of a squad player than a first-team regular. He has time to develop of course and is a long way from his peak, but there remains a lingering feeling a stronger, more imposing presence is needed in the centre of the pitch; maybe something that will be addressed in the summer.
Whatever happens, he’s played a vital role in our season, and deserves plenty of credit if we can go on to secure the league. This season, he has, overall, been our best option alongside Carrick. Next season, however, may be a different matter altogether.