With the international break upon us, all the talk will be about who will start for England in their important World Cup qualifiers against Montenegro and Poland. In the midfield, the Three Lions currently have an embarrassment of riches with the likes of Michael Carrick, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Jack Wilshere and now Ross Barkley competing for two or three central midfield spots. But one, unpopular player always slides under the radar, he is someone who has been a mainstay of the international set-up for a long time now and that man is Manchester United’s Tom Cleverley.
Cleverley is somewhat of an enigma to most United and England fans. He is constantly criticised for going missing in games and not having the required quality to be a member of two such prestigious teams. But for managers like Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes and Roy Hodgson to put so much faith in him, he must have something going for him, right? Let’s analyse the Tom Cleverley riddle and take a look at what he offers.
He is definitely less fashionable than the other midfielders mentioned but Cleverley knows how to keep things ticking over in the middle and he certainly knows how to play with a natural deep-lying playmaker such as Carrick or England captain Gerrard. At United, he has forged a great partnership with Carrick. Against Sunderland at the weekend, United were forced to pair the two together again due to Marouane Fellaini’s wrist injury and the Belgian’s absence ended up being a blessing in disguise.
What makes Cleverley and Carrick’s partnership work is the former’s ability to make runs in behind the opposition’s central midfielders and as they follow him, it allows Carrick to control possession of the ball. Cleverley’s Action Areas against Sunderland shows his ability to move forward from the deeper role.
Tom Cleverley Action Areas v Sunderland
Cleverley’s versatility allowed him to replace the roaming Adnan Januzaj on the left-hand side at times too.
Tom Cleverley Heat Map v Sunderland
His ability to make runs off the ball allows Carrick to control the game, like he did throughout last season. After having an indifferent start to the season, Carrick returned to his best and completed the most passes in the Premier League (101) at the weekend, including two key passes, and it comes as no coincidence that Cleverley was introduced back in the team on the same week.
Michael Carrick Passes v Sunderland (88 per cent Pass Accuracy)
Cleverley’s versatile nature did not stop him from holding onto possession as he completed 95 per cent of his own 61 passes. He also made two key passes, proving that he is capable of being creative and he isn’t always invisible. Notice in the graphic below, the amount of times he is covering for the marauding Januzaj on the left-flank.
Tom Cleverley Passes v Sunderland (95 per cent Pass Accuracy)
In fact, his ball retention is always very good (season average of 90 per cent pass accuracy) which is probably why he gets into both United and England’s sides because they have both been known to lose possession of the ball too easily. His passing accuracy was 90 per cent over the whole of last season too.
The most surprising aspect of his performance at the weekend was his ability to break-up play, as Cleverley won the most tackles (8) in the Premier League last weekend. To make this feat more impressive, it came at a 100 per cent success rate. It proves that he can get back into position alongside Carrick when United lose possession, which was vital to their system.
Tom Cleverley Tackles Won v Sunderland
All this means that if Cleverley started alongside Gerrard or Carrick against Montenegro, England would seem to have an answer to their midfield quandary. The Three Lions could start Wilshere in the left-midfield base position but allow him the freedom to roam across the pitch throughout the game, like he has been doing for Arsenal. This would not only give Leighton Baines more space down the left to go forward but Cleverley would give England someone to cover Wilshere if Montenegro counter-attacked. However, Cleverley could start, due to Wilshere being reported as a doubt for tonight's game.
It is obvious that some people have a sustained dislike of Cleverley and you can understand why because he does a lot of his work off the ball. He does seem to go missing at times but he does occasionally show that he offers a tactical advantage to both United and England. There is no doubt that he needs to start creating more chances and score more goals, much like Aaron Ramsey has been doing, if critics are to change their opinion on him. But he is not as bad a footballer as most people make out.