Manchester United's season has unravelled quicker than a ball of string dropped into a bag of cats, with David Moyes' only realistic hopes of a major trophy in his debut season now lying in the Champions League – a long shot if there ever was one.
Still, the Red Devils did themselves credit against Arsenal on Wednesday evening, seeing out a goalless draw at the Emirates after a poor run of form since the New Year that has seen five defeats in all competitions (six including the Capital One Cup penalty loss to Sunderland).
Both sides were admittedly lacklustre in front of goal, with Robin van Persie and Olivier Giroud missing gilt-edged chances to prove their prowess in leading the line on the night.
Wojciech Szczesny and David de Gea were both called into action with quick reflex stops towards the end of the game, but the real battle was in the centre of the park. Despite his detractors this term, Tom Cleverley went about his work quietly and confidently to underline his worth to David Moyes’ squad.
The 24-year-old sat in a holding role alongside Michael Carrick, with his remit to contain the Gunners’ roaming attacking midfielders and push possession on to United’s front four to inflict damage on the hosts.
His work rate and tenacity were highly valued by Sir Alex Ferguson - who used him 22 times in the Premier League last season - and Moyes went with the same idea on Wednesday, relying on Cleverley’s mobility to support Antonio Valencia and Rafael to negate the attacking threat of Kieran Gibbs and Santi Cazorla down Arsenal’s left flank.
Cleverley won three of five attempted tackles, made four interceptions and completed all three attempted clearances, a reputable defensive record which is a must for any midfielder hoping to get the better of Wenger's side this season.
The one area where the Red Devils man usually shines is in his passing accuracy, which was obviously a big draw for Ferguson – during the 2012/13 season, Cleverley achieved a fantastic pass completion rate of 90%, with this season’s rate just shy of that at 89%.
He struggled to replicate this form against Arsenal, with 9 of his 43 attempted passes going astray for a completion rate of 79% - that’s not bad for such a high-profile game, yet to become a main fixture for Moyes, Cleverley must be able to play the part he has shown he can do in the past.
The 24-year-old’s promising loan spell at Wigan raised hopes among the Old Trafford faithful that the club’s academy had finally produced another central midfielder to follow in the footsteps of Paul Scholes, yet his career has stalled somewhat.
Cleverley is no longer a promising youngster, but a 24-year-old who is failing to dominate games that his tenacious displays once suggested. He has become a name on the teamsheet to be vilified before a ball has been kicked, rivalling only the likes of Ashley Young in terms of pre-emptive scorn.
But the statistics against Arsenal prove what most reliable witnesses already know about the midfielder - that he is a diligent, hard-working presence in the centre for United, if somewhat unspectacular.
The midfielder has scored one goal and created 10 chances in 19 league appearances this season, and generally performs well in duels, save for in the air, where he suffers due to his 5' 9 frame (6/20 headers won). Last season he won an impressive 74% of attempted tackles, though that has slipped to 49% this term - a key area he must work on to keep his chances of regular football alive.
While Cleverley may never become a club great, it's clear that he still has a role to play in Moyes' squad this season and beyond. He will not dominate a game like Paul Scholes or Steven Gerrard and score a 30-yard screamer, but his calm distribution will allow more talented players to flourish.
Cleverley's main problem of late is that United have few of these said talents performing well enough to actually win a game and the fans have turned on him for what he isn’t, rather than what he is. In actual fact, the Old Trafford academy graduate is the club’s seventh-best player in terms of Squawka's Performance Score with 397, nine ahead of least season’s talisman Robin van Persie.
The failures of Ferguson and Moyes to recruit top-class midfielders for United have shone a spotlight on the deficiencies in Cleverley’s game, which is harsh but fair given a club of United’s stature and supposed ambition.
But if the fans can learn to appreciate what he can add to the team – much-needed tenacity and rhythm in a flabby midriff – they can get along famously.