Tag Tom Cleverley

Tag Tom Cleverley

The science of scapegoating

Jonathan Shrager January 30, 2014 Tags: , , Opinion 17 comments
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Tom Cleverley has felt the full force of Reds’ frustration, as Manchester United fans clamber to scapegoat someone, or even seek to earmark a trip of scapegoats, including Ashley Young. Fans aplenty are literally endeavouring to master the science, perhaps even aspiring to an MSc(apegoat.) And yes, I’m labeling scapegoating as a science as opposed to an art purely so that it fits my pun.

Apropos our beloved Reds, I ordinarily adhere to that classic United mantra of looking “on the bright side of life.” I’m generally not one for scapegoating a single individual, but I am intermittently culpable. When I catch myself being excessively critical towards one man, I tend to reign myself in.

But, whilst I invariably attempt to arrive at a bright verdict, I do have eyes that see things, and then subsequently communicate with my brain via untold billions of synapses and nerve-endings, relaying information and leaving my mind to process this into quasi-coherent thoughts.

As a consequence, I’ve personally come to the conclusion that Ashley Young, whilst sporadically showcasing a moderate improvement, quite simply isn’t good enough. Yes, he has moments – minutes – when he looks slightly better. Credit where it’s due, he contributed significantly versus Cardiff City in one of his rare impressive performances, but Young couldn’t be any bloody worse. He originally struck me as an underwhelming signing, and less than a handful of ensuing games have persuaded me otherwise.

I don’t really apportion too much blame on Ashley for this. Young looked handy in the Midlands, but it’s a different ball game playing for Aston Villa. Some, like Dwight Yorke, make the upward transition seamlessly; others don’t, and I think Ashley has struggled with the enormity of playing for United at times.

Tom Cleverley, as someone recently dubbed him, is a “continuity” player. He’s there on the field, he makes up the numbers. He’s neither good nor bad, he’s nondescript, and he’s fond of playing it simple. Cleverley can retain possession, but he offers little of tangible value. I’d rather have a 70 per cent match-fit Darren Fletcher than a 110 per cent in-form – whatever that means – Cleverley.

But I do disagree with Reds tweeting that they dislike everything about him. Come on, his hair isn’t that bad. Someone countered this assertion by affirming that modeling his style on Alex Büttner is arguably his biggest sin. These naysayers were being overly-harsh; surely it was Tom who pioneered that ‘do?’ The fact this was even being discussed on Twitter says it all.

It’s certainly not beyond the realms of possibility that Cleverley could prove most of us wrong. Instances abound of players turning it around on the field, thereby subverting the fans’ negative perceptions.

Extreme examples exist. Darren Fletcher went from allegations of nepotism – Darren as Sir Alex Ferguson’s lovechild – and Fergie picking his son as the solitary viable explanation for his inclusion, à la Sunday footy – to being the man whose absence cost United the ’09 Champions League. That, amigos, epitomizes a turnaround.

But admittedly it can be difficult for even the most red-lensed of fans to discern what Cleverley actually does on a football field. My sympathy does rest with him though; he’s barely been rested during a period of restlessness amongst the Old Trafford faithful. Cleverley has been been propelled into the regular first-team line-up, when perhaps his substantive caliber doesn’t warrant the berth.

I spotted a stat recently that the midfielder started eight games in 23 days towards the back end of last year. For even the finest and fittest of players, in a winning set-up, this would prove a challenge. A dearth of confidence compounds the situation, and a vicious circle is engendered.

Cleverley can undoubtedly be a useful squad player, though I fear that pointing out any redeeming features about Tom are essentially superfluous. People have made up their minds, and he’ll most likely continue to be scapegoated. Heck, it’s probably even Cleverley’s fault United lost at Chelsea.

I would have loved the patent coupling of adverb and past participle within the headline “Cleverley Done” to have carried overridingly positive connotations. Alas, I fear it’ll be the widespread headline when he’s ousted from the club; an inauspicious double entendre.

Whilst Cleverley may be the G.O.A.T (Greatest Of All Time) scapeGOAT, and Young is both literally and metaphorically often the fall guy for United’s woes, there are other perennial whipping boys at Old Trafford.

Patrice Evra seldom eludes vilification. I love Evra’s passion for a great club. But when not completely neglecting the art of defending, he has more concentration lapses than an ADHD goldfish, invariably guilty of conceding at least one gilt-edge chance per game.

It doesn’t particularly help that Evra’s deputy left-back hasn’t ingratiated himself at Old Trafford. Perhaps because it’s all too easy to mistake Büttner for Cleverley from a distance in the stands. Alex’ cross for United’s FA cup goal versus Swansea City was world class, which leads me to think that he could make a handy left-winger if he develops into a more competent all-round footballer.

Meanwhile, Antonio ‘Toni’ Valencia has returned to some semblance of his former one-dimensional self. His time at the club can be encapsulated seasonally: effective one-trick pony, injured, ineffective no-trick Toni. In-between one-trick pony and no-trick Toni, a sort of hybrid half-a-trick unicorn perhaps? Valencia certainly has a phobia of being on the inside of things; there’s probably a word for that.

But one thing I spotted on his Twitter account that endeared him to me was his defiant message in the face of United’s recent travails: “In my vocabulary there is no word surrender.” How can you not love Toni when he’s quasi-quoting the Rocky IV anthem?

United bought Marouanne Fellaini to knock down a few headers onto the more talented, more vertically challenged players buzzing around his knees, but the only thing the Belgian has been knocking down so far is the price of his wigs outside Old Trafford. Yet, to be utilized in his best position, he’s proven so underwhelming that I’d even shaved my novelty Afro within a fortnight to produce the Ashley Young ‘do.

Despite the fact that his first forward pass versus Sunderland in second leg of cup was his penalty, Fletch’s form since returning, all things considered, is nothing short of phenomenal. There was a time, circa ’06, when seeing the midfield partnership of Fletch and Michael Carrick on the team sheet would great dishearten me. More recently, it’s flippin’ delighted me.

Most of the players I cite above are relatively established players at the club. I’m not one to formulate a hasty opinion. Nor am I one of those Reds who loves my criticisms to be vindicated. Bugger that, I’d much rather be proven wrong, and consume a portion of self-served humble pie.

This was instantiated with everyone’s darling Mancunian Danny Welbeck. I’ve been willing him to silence my aspersions, and I equally reveled in him doing so. I hold my hands up – there was a marked improvement when Welbeck was consistently deployed in his natural attacking berth. I had questioned his finishing ability, an attribute I believe to depend more upon nature than nurture.

But footy fans are frequently culpable of short memories, and most were disregarding Welbeck’s prolificness at Sunderland prior to injury curtailing his flow. All his recent finishes have proven instinctive, Andy Cole-esque in the fashion he thrives on a snapshot chance as opposed to having time to dwell on a finish. The penalty versus Sunderland is a case in point.

And as with Danny, I’d even love for Young to go on to become a world-beater. But as I said, I’m not a person prone to delusion.

It’d be remiss of me to pontificate on the discourse of United scapegoats without alluding to the primary subject of criticism – fall man(ager) numero uno – Señor David Moyes. How I’d love to hear some of David’s private conversations with his missus – nothing sexual you filthy animals – just to learn his innermost thoughts during these testing times.

The poor fella. When he’s not being publicly backed by Robbie Savage, his every solitary word and gesture is being painstakingly psychoanalysed. Moyes’ tone and rhetoric intimates that he may still carry a modicum of the Everton mindset, but surely this is to be expected following a decade at the club.

I, of course, hope he progressively inherits the frame of mind of a big club manager, but in its own way it’s admirable that he isn’t giving it the ‘Barry McGuigan’ on the back of someone else’s success. Then he’d be lambasted for a false sense of self-importance – a he “can’t do right for doing wrong” sort of scenario. I haven’t dug up any old footage to buttress my hypothesis, but I’m sure it took Sir Alex some years and success before he developed some of his gall and gumption as an interviewee.

Anyway, I’ll leave the Moyes debate for a separate forthcoming article.

Having enumerated a catalogue of alleged culprits who’ve bore the brunt of Reds’ blues, I’m going to conclude on a decidedly positive note. It is at moments like these that I like to recall the beautiful words of Maya Angelou: “God puts rainbows in the clouds so that each of us – in the dreariest and most dreaded moments – can see a possibility of hope.” And oh, how rainbows abound.

The tantalizing prospect of world class quartet – Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Adnan Januzaj, Juan Mata – playing the beautiful game in harmony. Adnan is a resplendent multi-coloured semi-circle of sheer joy; Rooney’s renewed vigour has been another rainbow; Rafael da Silva’s continued progress; Phil Jones’ Robbo-esque midfield presence; Fletch’s return to health. They’re all great big bloody marvelous rainbows.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter – @JonathanShrager

Cleverley’s challenge

Jay Shon May 25, 2013 Tags: , Opinion 27 comments
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Cristiano Ronaldo arguably scored his greatest goal for Manchester United  against Porto in 2009. It was a fantastic strike from forty yards out, but Ronaldo’s movement must not be overlooked; the forward had made the ‘false nine’ role his own during that season, dropping off the front to find the space and time needed to line up that shot.

Anderson, however, was credited with an assist for making a five-yard lateral pass to the Portuguese. There really is no way of differentiating a ‘good’ assist from a ‘bad’ assist from a statistical point of view. Beauty in this case is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Spurred on by Michael Lewis’ excellent Moneyball, just about every club of note, in all sports, now boasts a data analysis department, and analysts differ wildly on how they evaluate players and tactics.

Statistics can be beguiling. Wayne Rooney, for example, has enjoyed two exemplary seasons in terms of goals and assists, but his performances have been subpar at best. Take Paul Scholes in recent seasons – he epitomises imagination and creativity in his passing, but his assist statistic is dwarfed by Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard.

So in judging Tom Cleverley, should one look beyond the meager five assists and two goals he has managed since his introduction to the Manchester United first team in 2011? After all, he has mainly been deployed deep in central midfield where opportunities for killer balls and shots are limited. Although Michael Carrick, who plays deeper still, has racked up five assists and two goals in each of past two seasons.

In the 23-year-old’s Cleverley’s defense Carrick played a lot more often. Still, it is hard to picture Cleverley in the first team. While his stamina and work-rate are commendable, the Basingstoke-born player’s injury proneness is notorious. His height and muscularity offer little in the way of physical strength and he is not particularly quick.

In fact, Cleverley’s lack of speed greatly limits his potential on the wings. He simply doesn’t have the pace to succeed as a traditional winger in the mold of Antonio Valencia. Yet, he has been used on the left by Sir Alex Ferguson and at Wigan and Watford as an inverted winger.

During the two seasons in which Cleverley was deployed in wide roles he managed a goal per roughly ten shots – in line with Ashley Young or Antonio Valencia’s record. It begs a question, with stamina, a great tactical mind and willingness to work hard, could Cleverley can become another Ji-sung Park?

Given Cleverley’s ability on the ball, he also remains a decent option on the wings as an inverted winger directly attacking the defenders or, like Ryan Giggs, used to retain possession.Yet, with reinforcements likely this summer it is hard to see Cleverley breaking into the first team on the flanks.

Indeed, Cleverley’s ability on the ball is excellent. Schooled by Rene Meulensteen, he controls the ball well in tight quarters and engages in high tempo short passing game. This has placed him at the tip of the England national team midfield. The Englishman perhaps lacks incision in the traditional number 10, vis-à-vis penetrative through balls, but makes up for it by setting up one-twos. Crucially, he quickens the pace of the game.

David Moyes had emphasised quick transition during his time at Everton. Quick transition, as practiced by Real Madrid and Dortmund, is essentially long-ball football played on the ground. The Scot, who set up his Everton teams to concentrate playing in the opposition half, might greatly appreciate Tom Cleverley if it wasn’t for Shinji Kagawa’s presence in the United squad.

At Dortmund, Kagawa was often excused from all defensive duties and allowed to concentrate on sniffing out spaces to launch counterattacks. Jurgen Klopp, unlike Ferguson, had the Japanese run onto the ball – at United, the players pass the ball into Kagawa’s feet. With the ball in front of him, Kagawa just needs to apply the final touch. When the ball is coming to his feet, Kagawa has to twist and turn before making his move.

Kagawa epitomises quick transition football as practiced by Dortmund and there is every chance that Moyes will see the Japanese as key should the incoming United manager decide to continue with his football philosophy. This means that Cleverley will not be claiming the central attacking midfield spot as his own.

Moyes is also fanatical about width. Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra are excellent attacking full-backs and there is every chance that the former Everton manager will allow them to push forward and overload the flanks.

But with two attacking full-backs, United’s central midfield will be set up more defensively. Rafael Benitez, who probably knows more about 4-2-3-1 than any other manager on the planet, argues that with “offensive full-backs, you have to find that right balance. [You need two holding midfielders].”

There is very little point in deploying Cleverley as a defensive midfielder for the Englishman is all about movement and tempo. With Carrick there to provide quick, incisive balls to the wingers and full-backs, Cleverley will be redundant.

In the past season Rooney has shouldered a lot of ball winning responsibilities and allowed Ferguson to field two passers in the middle. Should Rooney leave the club, and Kagawa offered an important role, United will need a genuine defensive player in midfield to partner Carrick.

With the squad set up more or less for 4-2-3-1, Moyes will probably ‘go with the flow’ and make just minor changes to the football philosophy. After all, it’s foolhardy to impose something totally different on a successful squad used to doing things a certain way.

This is bad news for Cleverley. His versatility is admirable, but ultimately he is a jack of all trades rather than a bona fide master of any. Barring drastic changes on Moyes’ part, Cleverley will not cement a first team place next season.

Poll: is Tom Cleverley worth it?

Ed October 14, 2012 Tags: , Polls 31 comments

The Mirror reports ;that Tom Cleverley is negotiations with the club over a new five-year contract that will net the midfielder up to £80,000 per week. If signed, the new deal will be the second contract offered to the 23-year-old in little more than a year, earning Cleverley around £20 million over the deal’s lifetime. It represents an eight-fold increase in wages in around 18 months; by any stretch, spectacular financial progress.

Cleverley has become a regular in Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United side over the past two seasons – injury permitting – and scored a spectacular goal at St. James’ Park last weekend. The midfielder has also become a fixture in Roy Hodgson’s England team, starting against Sam Marino at Wembley on Friday night.

Yet, with just 21 games played for the club – 15 starts – ;and two goals scored, the England international is still in the very early stages of his Old Trafford career. Farmed out to Leicester City, Watford and then Wigan Athletic, Cleverley still has much to prove at the highest level. ;In reality the ;Basingstoke-born player still has much to prove too, being, for example, just two year’s younger than Lionel Messi and vastly less experienced.

Is Tom Cleverley worth £80,000 per week?

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Reds face up to early season disruption

Ed July 4, 2012 Tags: , , , , Opinion 8 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson could face a challenging start to the new season, with Euro 2012, injury, and the Olympics disrupting Manchester United’s preparations ahead of the Premier League’s start on 18 August. Seven United players will miss the Reds’ pre-season tour of South Africa, China and Norway after appearing in the Euro 2012 tournament this summer. Meanwhile, four Reds are set to appear in the Olympics, with the gold medal match scheduled to take place in London just a week before the new season kicks off. It could leave Ferguson without a dozen players during United’s pre-season programme.

United’s Euro 2012 players – Wayne Rooney, Phil Jones, Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck, Patrice Evra, Nani and Anders Lindegaard – will not travel with the touring party after being given extra time to recover this summer. None will miss the big kick-off, injury permitting, but neither will the group benefit from the pre-season matches required to be match fit for the start of the new campaign. The group will each return to training late, although Rooney played just twice at the tournament, Evra once, while Jones and Lindegaard spent Euro 2012 on the bench.

United began pre-season training on Monday 2 July, with Sir Alex’ side taking on Amazulu FC in Durban on 18 July, followed by matches with Ajax Cape Town in Cape Town three days later. United’s tour moves on to China, where Ferguson’s side meets Didier Drogba’s Shanghai Shenua, followed by a fixtures with Valerenga in Oslo, and Barcelona at the Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg. The lengthy and five country summer tour concludes with a match against Hannover 96 at the AWD Arena on 11 August.

Adding to Ferguson’s early season challenges, it appears likely that four players will also take part at the Olympics. Fixtures in the under-23 tournament are spread across the UK, with the football tournament starting on 25 July and concluding just a week before the new Premier League season finishes on 11 August in London.

David de Gea is included in Spain’s strong Olympics squad, with La Roja’s juniors one of the tournament favourites. The provisional Spanish squad also includes Juan Mata, Javier Martinez, and Jordi Alba, each of whom appeared at Euro 2012 this summer. Luis Milla’s young Spaniards are heavily based on the squad that secured the European U-21 championship last summer.

Challenging Spain for the tag of tournament favourite is Brazil, with coach Mano Menezes including Rafael da Silva in his provisional 35-man squad. The 50-year-old manager will cut his squad to 18 players by 6 July, and Rafael’s is not guaranteed. Brother Fabio, who this week joined Queens Park Rangers on loan for the 2012/13 season, is not included in Menezes’ tournament party.

Anderson, who played in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, is not included after losing his place in the Brazilian side, while the 24-year-old only qualifies as an over-age player.

Meanwhile, in the British Olympic squad Ryan Giggs and Tom Cleverley have been included by coach Stuart Pearce. Giggs’ inclusion had been long expected, adding an experienced bent to a young Anglo-Welsh squad. No Scots or Northern Irish players are included in Pearce’s squad.

Giggs is signed up to another campaign at Old Trafford, but will now miss pre-season to be part of Pearce’s squad, with the British taking on Senegal at Old Trafford in Britain’s first Olympic football fixture since 1960. Team GB play the United Arab Emirates at Wembley before the final Group A game against Uruguay in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on 1 August.

While Ferguson encourage Giggs’ participation, with the 38-year-old Welshman having missed out on tournament football with Wales, the United manager blocked all other over-age players taking part, including Rio Ferdinand, Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick. Chris Smalling misses out with the thigh injury that ended his hopes of being included in Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2012 party.

Cleverley’s inclusion is a mixed blessing though, with the 22-year-old having missed much of 2011/12 with a recurrent ankle injury. While Cleverley could play in at least three matches during United’s pre-season period, he will not join United’s touring party at any point. Cleverley, though, says he is taking part with Ferguson’s approval.

“Throughout my career I want to experience many things,” said Cleverley. “The Olympics would be a fantastic part of it. I’m buzzing about it. I cannot wait. It is a great way for me to bounce back after the disappointment of not going to the Euros with England.

“It’s a young squad, apart from the older-age players, and after England’s Euro 2012 experience a lot of people are talking about putting the accent on youth. This is a chance for me to remind people early. They’ve put trust in us and I want to repay that faith.”

“I need to hit the ground running for the new season and this is a great chance for me. The manager was happy for me that I was shortlisted and had no problems about me being in the Olympics. I will miss United’s pre-season tour and, ideally, I would have liked to do both. But after my injury spell out last season, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick were doing so well I didn’t get much game time. So I need minutes on the pitch and I feel that playing in high-stake competitive matches like I’ll get at the Olympics is right for me.”

Elsewhere Ferguson has ensured that Javier Hernandez is not included in Mexico’s squad, despite suggestions that the 24-year-old could be his country’s flag-bearer at the Games. Meanwhile, new signing Shinji Kagawa will not be part of Japan’s squad for the three-week long tournament.

Add injuries to captain Nemanja Vidić, and Fletcher into the mix, and Ferguson faces up to United’s pre-season programme without a dozen players. It’s a disruptive element that will ensure some younger faces in the Reds’ touring party this summer.

Determined Cleverley hopes to dodge another injury bullet

Ed June 20, 2012 Tags: Opinion 20 comments

For a career still in its infancy, Tom Cleverley’s already become a paradox. For all the youngster’s inexperience, Cleverley will start the forthcoming season as his fifth in senior professional football. Still in the throes of youth, yet the Basingstoke-born midfielder turns 23 in August. For all the talk of ‘brand Cleverley’ the player is yet to win a trophy at the highest level. And despite the belief that the kid can replace Paul Scholes as Manchester United’s creative force, Cleverley is yet to complete a full campaign as a player.

It is a career of immense promise, as yet unfulfilled by consistent performances, or some may add, an injury-free run with four different clubs. Indeed, the talented 22-year-old faces a pivotal coming season having missed out on much of the previous campaign with an ankle injury, and England’s Euro 2012 party too. No longer can Cleverley afford to stand still, wait on the sidelines, or – the nightmare scenario – the physiotherapist’s bench.

Despite the limited appearances in a United shirt to date – just 15 in competitive matches – Cleverley made his club debut on the Reds’ pre-season tour of South Africa in July 2008, converting Wayne Rooney’s knock-down for United’s third goal in a 4-0 win over Kaizer Chiefs in Johannesburg.

The summer tour proved not to be the breakthrough into Sir Alex Ferguson’s first team though, with the 2007/08 Denzil Haroun Reserve Player of the Year award nominee farmed out to Leicester City on loan in January 2009. After 15 appearances for the Tigers Cleverley’s loan spell came to an abrupt end when he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury; the first of many.

The following campaign Cleverley joined Watford, scoring 11 times in 33 games for the Championship outfit before suffering a knee injury and yet another premature end to the season.

Another loan, this time to Wigan Athletic during the 2010/11 season, came after Cleverley had joined the Reds’ summer tour to the United States, and Ferguson’s assertion that the youngster would remain at Old Trafford. Yet, the loan spell at Wigan proved to be successful, if blighted – once again – by niggling injuries. Four goals in 25 appearances followed in a frustratingly stop-start season.

It has been the pattern of a young career; talent interrupted. Indeed, Cleverley began the 2011/12 season with Ferguson’s first team, coming on to such devastating effect during the Community Shield, and then in games against West Bromwich Albion, and Arsenal, before injury struck once again against Bolton Wanderers. An abortive comeback against Everton in September only succeeded in aggravating the problem, essentially ending Cleverley’s season as a first team regular.

“I’d hate to be getting the injury-prone tag because the injuries I’ve had have all been contact, impact or reckless tackles,” said Cleverley who has suffered a broken leg, serious knee, ankle and shoulder injuries.

“It’s not like I’m picking up hamstring injuries or thigh injuries all the time. Hopefully I’m getting all the bad luck out at the start of my career and I can go on to play as long as Giggsy – he’s the perfect example.

“The first couple of weeks was just basically resting and staying off my feet That helped massively. Then I got back into the gym from then for about two months and worked massively hard with Neil Hough, Rob Swire, the doc and the hard work paid off. I definitely filled out a bit.

“When you’re not on the pitch you can work on other areas. I did work with video analysis, I worked hard in the gym on my upper body and I did vision work too. It’s a fantastic training ground because you can work hard on all aspects of your game when you’re injured. Everything I could work on, I worked on. I’ve done everything I can while I’ve been out.”

Yet, Cleverley’s hard work in the gym is yet to nullify criticism of  ‘brand TC23’  and the player’s commercial aspirations during a lengthy period on the sidelines. The midfielder appointed a brand consultancy last season to develop commercial revenue, while a Twitter handle that boasts more than 500,000 followers offers regular updates on the player’s sponsors – on one occasion five commercial messages in succession.

Add the glamour model girlfriends, lurid newspaper stories – one later brought to court – and there is legitimate reason to question the player’s commitment; a charge Cleverley patently rejects.

Still, there is pressing need to deliver on the pitch in the coming season if a talented player’s progress is not to be stilted. He cannot afford another 15-20 game season. Yet, the summer acquisitions of Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa and Crewe Alexandra’s Nick Powell add significant competition, even if the latter is likely to start the new campaign with the reserves.

Kagawa, however, is a serious barrier to Cleverley’s potential game time in the attacking midfield position in Ferguson’s likely 4-2-3-1 system next season. The England international may instead compete with Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes and Anderson for a spot in central midfield or, worse, be shunted out to the wing.

Moreover, it is a challenge that may be affected by a call up to Great Britain’s Olympic squad, with the youngster believed to be on Stuart Pearce’s long-list of 35 players.

“The Olympics in London is probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so to be involved would be a massive thing for me,” Cleverley said recently.

“It’s a massive event, one of the highlights of the summer, and the Olympics in London is probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so to be involved would be a massive thing for me. An Olympic gold would be special because it’s so unique.”

Sir Alex, who has banned any over-age players bar Ryan Giggs joining up with the Olympic squad, may disagree. And if inclusion in the party comes at the expense of missing the opening games of the new season, Cleverley may have course to regret it too.

Reds look to returning injured, with pivotal games on the horizon

Ed January 20, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 32 comments

Manchester United heads south this weekend at the start of a testing stretch for Sir Alex Ferguson’s men. The Scot’s side visits Arsenal on Sunday, with a month of potentially decisive fixtures ahead. But Ferguson must again do without without a phalanx of key players at the Emirates as injury continues to bite into the Scot”s resources.

Yet, with Tom Cleverley back in light training, Ashley Young slowly on the mend and a handful of other players ready to feature against the Londoners, Ferguson can at least see some light at the end of a long injury tunnel. It will be a huge boon to United’s chances of taking a 20th domestic league title in May.

Cleverley moves from the gym to running outdoors this week, with the 22-year-old now out of the cast that has protected an injured ankle since the midfielder hobbled off against Everton in October. The youngster departed just 58 minutes into his return from a similar injury suffered against Bolton Wanders on 10 September.

With Cleverley went the vibrant and now seemingly long forgotten flowing football of the late summer. Yet, progress in Cleverley’s rehabilitation means that the England midfielder can realistically look to play some part in United’s Europa League double-header with Ajax in mid February. The midfielder’s return has been a very long time coming, as Ferguson’s side has stuttered through matches with a patched up engine room over the past three months.

Indeed, Michael Carrick aside, there has been little consistency in United’s midfield for months. With Anderson and Darren Fletcher also injured, Ferguson has deployed half-a-dozen players in central midfield this season – Wayne Rooney, Phil Jones, Ryan Giggs, Darron Gibson, Park Ji Sung, and even Rafael da Silva. All too often with little effect as the Reds slipped behind Manchester City in the title race, and out of Europe in the group stages.

In the meantime, Ferguson’s men will face Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, twice, before Cleverley is ready to start for United again. It is genuinely scary stuff, leaving Ferguson with a big call at the weekend: whether to retain formerly retired veteran Paul Scholes alongside Carrick, risk Anderson’s fitness, or go with Giggs’ experience against the Gooners.

Meanwhile, Ferguson’s midfield options will increase further when former Aston Villa winger Ashley Young returns to the side in early February. The 26-year-old, also recovering from an ankle injury, should be ready for selection for United’s Premier League match against Liverpool at Old Trafford.

“It’s going well. I’ve been in the gym most days but it’s getting there and hopefully I’ll be back soon,” said Young during a Betfair webcast on Thursday.

“I’m enjoying it. From the minute I stepped into the building, I was welcomed with open arms by everybody in the squad. All the staff have been brilliant. There’s competition for places all around the team so you’ve always got to be on your toes.

“It’s going to be a tough game [on Sunday], but I’m sure we’ll go down there full of confidence and looking to get three points – as we do in any game. There’s a lot of points to play for and everyone wants to be top of the table but there’s plenty of games left and we’ve got to concentrate on ourselves and look to go down there and win.”

In Young’s absence Antonio Valencia has flourished on the right-wing. Gone are the tentative displays of early season. Back is the dynamic, decisive, attacking Ecuadorian who so impressed fans during his debut season at Old Trafford. Young’s own form has been mixed, much like Ferguson’s side.

Following two defeats over Christmas, United can hardly lose any more points now, especially with City at home to Tottenham Hotspur this weekend. That City may well be six points ahead by the time United kick off at the Emirates will only heap pressure on the Reds to grind out a result, at a ground where Arsenal blow distinctly hot and cold. Arsene Wenger’s men have lost two in a row on the road, but still retain, in Robin van Persie, the league’s in-form goalscorer.

It won’t get any easier for Ferguson’s men over the next month though. United travel to Liverpool for what is likely to be an intense, potentially draining, FA cup tie in just over a week. Matches against Chelsea, Liverpool – again – and Ajax follow.

It is a pity, then, that neither Cleverley, nor Young, will be fully match sharp for a series that will surely decide United’s fate in two domestic and one European competition. In a season of more slings and arrows than Ferguson will care to remember, the Scot can but hope that the duo’s return marks the end of the most serious injury crisis at Old Trafford in the past decade.

It is gratifying at least that Ferguson should be able to call on defenders Rio Ferdinand, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans and Phil Jones at Arsenal.

A midfielder or two? Perchance to dream, as somebody might once have said.

Reds’ tricky series

22 Jan – Premier League – Arsenal A
28 Jan – FA Cup – Liverpool A
31 Jan – Premier League – Stoke City H
05 Feb – Premier League – Chelsea A
11 Feb – Premier League – Liverpool H
16 Feb – Europa League – Ajax A
23 Feb – Europa League – Ajax H

Cleverley returns for Reds’ present and future

Ed October 10, 2011 Tags: Opinion 21 comments

Tom Cleverley will be available for Manchester United’s fixture with Liverpool this weekend after regaining fitness from an ankle injury sustained against Bolton Wanderers a month ago. Cleverley’s return to action is good news both for player and club on the day the 22-year-old central midfielder signed a new four-year contract at Old Trafford. It is a deal that underscores both Cleverley’s long and short-term importance to Sir Alex Ferguson’s planning.

In the short-term Cleverley’s return may help arrest a perceived dip in United’s form since the midfielder’s fifth minute injury at the Reebok Stadium. Ferguson’s side has drawn matches against FC Basel, Stoke City and Benfica in the midfielder’s continued absence, while the 2-0 victory over Norwich City prior to the international break was far from impressive.

Indeed, Cleverley’s period on the sidelines has also co-incided with – or perhaps exacerbated – Anderson’s dip in form over the past four weeks, with the Brazilian’s sub-par performance against Chelsea followed by similarly insipid displays in the aforementioned draws.

No wonder Ferguson was so effusive in his praise of Cleverley today, describing the Basingstoke-born player as having fully taken his opportunity this season. Cleverley’s return, Ferguson will hope, will also reignite Anderson as United attempt to arrest a series of three draws in the past six matches this season when the Scot’s side visits old rivals Liverpool on Saturday.

“Tom is one of the brightest prospects in the English game,” the United manager told ManUtd.com.

“For a young boy, he has a good footballing brain which, when coupled with his energy and ability, makes for a player with a fine future ahead of him. It’s the United way to encourage our young players to make their mark in the first team and Tom has grabbed that chance with both hands.”

But Cleverley’s injury has also raised old questions about the composition of Ferguson’s midfield, or at least the Scot’s options. After all, Anderson’s inconsistency, Darren Fletcher’s very lengthy illness and Michael Carrick’s passivity this season are hardly new. Cleverley’s injury has taught supporters, and presumably Ferguson too, that the youngster will be central to United’s success or failure this season.

Moreover, the player’s humility and patience over the past four years, while on loan with three different clubs, says much for his chances of making early season success more permanent.

“It’s been a fantastic start to the season for me, breaking into the first team and getting an England call-up,” said the midfielder, who is yet to gain his first cap.

“Having grown up at the club, I’d love to be able to make a contribution to United winning more trophies. We have a squad with great ability and I can’t wait to get started again.”

Pithy statements aside, Cleverley’s impact since joining the fray as a second-half substitute against Manchester City during the Community Shield was pivotal in United’s fine start to the season, which included five Premier League victories in a row. Cleverley started the first four.

In the longer-term Ferguson’s faith in rewarding Cleverley with a huge pay rise, and a contract to 2015, should end any lingering speculation that the club will pursue a multi-million deal for a more experienced creative central midfielder either in January or next summer. That being said Cleverley’s deal evidently does little to reduce United’s reliance on the player for central midfield creativity in the coming season.

But if the player’s progress continues on the current hockey-stick curve then by next summer Cleverley will not only be well established in the United set-up but with England too, replacing one or both of the waning Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard in Fabio Capello’s side.

Yet, there is more work to be done. Glimpse the player’s career – and season – statistics and a tale of reliable passing is told – a Xavi-esque 85 per cent pass completion this campaign – yet without the goal output of the aforementioned England midfielders. Or, indeed, Paul Scholes. After all, Cleverley’s record of one-in-three at Watford was not matched last season with Wigan Athletic in the Premier League. Nor is the player’s assists record particularly impressive.

Moreover, injury against Bolton is the latest in an increasingly long line of medium-serious injuries sustained by the midfielder in a fledgling career. There is nothing like the stop-start nature of injury absences to hold a young player back.

For the moment Ferguson will simply be happy to once again have Cleverley in contention for United’s fixture at Anfield. History may suggest that the Scot is likely to pick three from Carrick, Anderson, Fletcher and Ryan Giggs in central midfield against the Scousers. But in keeping with the player’s rise this season, Cleverley’s sharpness in training over the next five days could yet swing the decision in his favour.

Clever facts
Born: 12 August 1989, Basingstoke
2008-2009: 15 games, 2 goals (Leicester City)
2009-10: 33 games, 11 goals (Watford), England under-20 and under-21 début
2010-11: 25 games, 4 goals (Wigan Athletic)
2011-12: United début versus City and called into full England squad

Fergie lauds teen Pogba as Reds future but what of the present?

Ed August 14, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 58 comments

Manchester United’s failure to land a central midfielder this summer is with scepticism in many quarters, with the club’s inability to meet the wage demands of Wesley Sneijder and Samir Nasri pointing many critics towards a charge of Glazernomics. Yet, while United’s poor record the road last season was almost entirely down to a paucity of options in central midfield, manager Sir Alex Ferguson has chosen not to acquire new talent for the role this summer.

Far from meeting the challenge of Barcelona’s dominance in Europe, and Manchester City’s lavish spending domestically, some pundits believe that United may well have run simply to stand still this summer. Indeed, while Ashley Young offers a new flexible attacking option, David de Gea and Phil Jones are new-for-old replacements in Ferguson’s squad. The question of whether United is ‘net better’ from this summer’s transfer activity is yet to be answered.

Yet the 69-year-old Scot believes – critics might add he has little choice – that emerging youngsters can fill the void left by Paul Scholes and Owen Hargreaves this summer. Tom Cleverley’s positive 45 minute display against City in the Community Shield offers reason for supporter optimism. Meanwhile, 18-year-old Frenchman Paul Pogba is singled out by Ferguson as a real hope not only for the future but the coming season as well.

“We’re quite positive about him,” Ferguson said.

“If we hold Paul Pogba back, what’s going to happen? He’s going to leave in a couple of years’ time when his contract is finished. We have to give him opportunities to see how he can do in the first team. He’s got the ability, the physique and the athleticism.”

That athletic frame has drawn comparisons with Patric Vieira, a lazy analogy born seemingly of players’ similar French-African roots and height. Indeed, those who have watched Pogba’s progress in United’s FA Youth Cup winning side last season witnessed a player of significant finesse, quick feet and attacking prowess. The comparison with former Arsenal midfielder Vieira is one that Ferguson rightly rejects.

“He could be a surprise for us. I took him to the charity game in Monaco and he played 25 minutes in the second half against Marseille’s first team and he did very well. He got involved right away and I said to myself, he’s not bad,” added Ferguson.

“He’s a big physical boy. He has a great physique, 6ft 2in, athletic. The new Patrick Vieira? That’s just because of his height and build. Patrick was a great player but this boy is only 18. Look at Patrick when he was 18, he was playing centre half for Cannes. He only emerged as a midfield player at AC Milan.

“But I believe Pogba has the equipment to be successful. Seeing youngsters like him come through helps me, it helps us all. It’s still one of my biggest thrills to see a youngster coming up through the ranks. The kids are the foundation of the club. I think the foundations are looking good at the moment. This helps to drive me.”

Yet there is much work to be done if Ferguson is to fast-track Pogba into the first team picture. Despite his potential Pogba would surely struggle in the Premier League’s more physical encounters. Meanwhile, Ferguson believes that the former Le Harve midfielder must develop a greater range of passing if he is to make it to the very top.

“You don’t want to be putting the lad under pressure yet, but he’s got all the equipment all right,” added the United boss.

“He’s strong and athletic and he’s almost ready to be considered. We are just trying to work on his distribution. He has been playing a short passing game and we think he could do with a bit more range. We will be giving him opportunities this season because if you don’t use good players you end up losing them. We can’t hold him back, and wouldn’t want to do anyway.”

Along with United’s other great midfield talent in the FA Youth Cup winning side, Ravel Morrison, Pogba can expect games in the Carling and FA Cups in the coming season. Ferguson is almost certain to pick fringe sides in the early rounds of both competitions, with United entering the Carling Cup at the third round stage in September.

Morrison, meanwhile, is unlikely to be fast-tracked into the first team picture until the youngster’s many off-the-field distractions have cleared. The club’s willingness to protect the 18-year-old Wythenshawe-born player, despite multiple court appearances over the past 18 months, says much for the talent on offer; arguably the most fluid English central midfielder with the ball at his feet since Paul Gascoigne.

In Morrison, Pogba, Cleverley and perhaps Anderson – if the €30 million Brazilian can ever find some consistency – Ferguson has built with the future very much in mind. The players represent an exciting quartet of midfield talent very much in the United tradition.

Yet, for all that future promise the feeling that United has sacrificed short-term progress at the Glazer’s financial altar is inescapable. Despite Barcelona’s utter destruction of the Reds’ midfield at Wembley in May the Catalan club has acquired in Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez two talents of the highest order. That – Nani aside – no United midfielder would make Barca’s squad, let alone first team, is telling.

In, out, shake Cleverley all about

Ed October 6, 2010 Tags: Opinion 11 comments

Tom Cleverley will return to Manchester United in January, according to Sir Alex Ferguson. The 21-year-old midfielder is on a one year loan deal with Wigan Athletic. But injury to Antonio Valencia has seemingly prompted a change of heart from the United manager. It is the third time Ferguson has changed his mind about the player.

Initially United’s manager suggested the midfielder would head out on loan, then cancelled the proposal in August, before agreeing to the Wigan deal as the transfer window closed.

Now the United manager has changed his mind again, prompting a January recall of the midfielder who scored 11 times for Watford last season and was voted the Championship club’s player of the year.

“We’ll probably bring Tom back in January. Tom’s going to be a great footballer, I really like him,” Ferguson told Inside United magazine this week.

“I’ve heard the fans are starting to talk about Tom, and I think they’re right to do that because he could very well be the next top player to come through the ranks.

“I felt it could be hard to give him enough football. I think five or six months on loan could really help him. He’ll benefit from first-team football in the Premier League.”

However, Cleverley has appeared just once for Wigan to date after suffering a knee injury in early September, although manager Roberto Martinez has spoken of the midfielder in glowing terms. In the single appearance to data Cleverley’s 20-yard-shot was deflected into the net, crediting the player with an assist.

The latest twist in the Cleverley saga is surprising though even if the scale of United’s midfield problems requires work by the manager. Although strong in numbers many of the club’s midfielders have serious question marks hanging over them.

Indeed, during the summer Ferguson insisted that United keep hold of Cleverley due to the lack of a goalscoring midfielder at the club.

“He is an exceptional young player in terms of his ability to play a variety of positions,” Ferguson said in early August.

“He is such a talent, we must keep him. He showed at Watford that he’s a goalscorer from midfield and we need that. He has outstanding qualities.”

Yet Ferguson chose both to let Cleverley leave while doing nothing to solve the problem he had identified in central midfield.  United’s paucity of creative options  was amply demonstrated as Ferguson’s side slipped to yet another draw on the road against Sunderland last weekend. The Black Cats rightly identified Paul Scholes as United’s central hub and effectively marked him out of the game.

Now without Valencia until at least late February, Park Ji Sung in poor form, and Ryan Giggs approaching 37, need an extra attacking option in midfield. Cleverley can play across any midfield role, although many feel the youngster’s future an attacking central position and not on the wing.

The dilemma for Cleverley isn’t easy though, even if the youngster inevitably has set his heart on becoming a first team regular at Old Trafford. Should the player return to Manchester he is likely to find himself on the bench for large parts of the run-in.

Moreover, the manager’s call for faith in youth is yet to materialise this season with Rafael da Silva only recently breaking back into the team and Federico Macheda making just the sole league start to date.

The move to bring Cleverley back will find support among the fans though after the Basingstoke-born player impressed during United’s pre-season tour to North America and Mexico. Cleverley scored in the side’s 3-1 win over Celtic and then again with a stunning finish in United’s 5-2 victory over MLS All-Stars, although he has never played for United in the Premier League.

Cleverley has also broken into the England under-21 side, playing a central role in the recent victories over Macedonia and Portugal that qualified Stuart Pearce’s side for the 2011 UEFA European Under-21 Football Championship play-offs.

His next move could prove crucial if he is to progress into the midfielder fans and management alike wish to see at Old Trafford.

Cleverley completes Wigan move

Ed August 31, 2010 Tags: , Shorts 21 comments

Manchester United midfielder Tom Cleverley has completed a move to Wigan Athletic on a season-long loan deal. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson had previously said that the midfielder, 21, is too good to loan out. However, Cleverley will now spend the next year at the DW Stadium under Latics manager Roberto Martinez’ guidance.

“Tom is a very exciting young player and we are delighted he his coming to us,” said Martinez.

“He can play in a number of positions and will provide us with some good new options, and add great competition to the squad.

“We have been watching him for some time and feel he is the right sort of player to join our squad; young, hungry, desperate to play for the club in the Premier League and to grow with us.”

However, the move comes as something of a surprise following Ferguson’s previous declaration that the midfielder would stay at Old Trafford this season.

“He is an exceptional young player in terms of his ability to play a variety of positions,” Ferguson said in early August.

“He is such a talent, we must keep him. He showed at Watford that he’s a goalscorer from midfield and we need that. He has outstanding qualities.”

However, Cleverley did not make the squad for United’s three Premier League fixtures to date despite performing brightly on the club’s pre-season tour to Canada, USA and Mexico. United also failed to secure another creative midfielder in the transfer window, although Anderson – 13 goals, one for United, in 155 career games – is due to return in late September.

Cleverley will join Wigan’s battle against relegation this season in preference to a move to Bolton Wanderers. While Owen Coyle was keen to bring the England Under-21 international to the Reebok, Wigan’s ability to offer Cleverley football every week appears to have been the deciding factor.

The player scored 11 goals in 33 matches for Watford last season.