The Busby Babe continues with the 21st installment of our 2012-13 Manchester United player reviews. Next up is midfielder Tom Cleverley.
I'm going to be dividing each of the player reviews into three categories: 'what was expected' will be a brief and general explanation of what the expectations were for the player prior to the season's start, 'what we got' will typically be the section with the most depth as this will be the heart of the review, and 'what's next?' will be an examination of the player's future at United.
What was expected
Cleverley, a product of United's youth academy, was given his chance to break into the first-team at the beginning of the 2011-12 season. He generally impressed in those early season opportunities -- alongside Anderson in a midfield duo -- while Sir Alex Ferguson's side was gathering 8-2 and 3-0 victory scalps over the likes of Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur, respectively. The then 22-year-old would pick up an injury from a tackle by Bolton's Kevin Davies in September 2011 and after that, the rest of his season was filled by injury and inconsistent form. By season's end, he had appeared just 15 times with only 9 of those being starts. His early season displays, though, provided optimism ahead of this one as did his impressive form for Team Great Britain in last summer's London Olympics. The basic expectation was that the 23-year-old would challenge Paul Scholes to be Michael Carrick's first-choice partner in midfield and at worst, the England international would be a useful squad player if he could stay fit.
What we got
* GS: games started (substitute appearances),G = goals scored, A = assists, Avg P = average passes per game, Pass % = passing accuracy percentage, FT % = final third passing accuracy percentage, KP = chances created per game, C = successful crosses per game, C% = accurate cross percentage, LB = accurate long balls per game, LB % = long ball accuracy rate, TB = successful through balls per game, DRB = successful dribbles per game, TKL = tackles per game, INT = interceptions per game
Overall, it was a fairly solid season for Cleverley. He spent most of the first-half of the season being the first-choice partner for Carrick in the center of the park while England manager Roy Hodgson picked him to start in every international match during the season as well.
For United, most of Cleverley's appearances came deep in a midfield duo. For a midfielder, though, the 23-year-old has good mobility and a versatile skillset. Therefore, he was also able to be deployed as a shuttler when Ferguson opted to use a diamond midfield, as a nominal and tucked-in wide player when the out-of-form wingers were dropped, and also as a No.10 (at times) for Hodgson's England.
Cleverley's best role appears to be that of a mobile No. 8: one that can recycle possession in deeper areas, carry the ball forward, and in engage in quick passing combinations with the front four players in the attacking third. This compliments Carrick sitting in front of the back four in a calm No.6 role. Defensively, too, Cleverley showed discipline this season with his positioning when United looked defend deep before winning the ball and breaking down the flanks -- this was particularly evident early in the season during victories at Chelsea and at Manchester City. When United are more proactive with their approach, he can be prone to positional lapses, but that isn't a major concern about him, especially when he's partnered by an intelligent player like Carrick. This was an issue, though, last season when he partnered Anderson in midfield*. The Englishman's finishing certainly needs to improve but he did show that he has the ability to take his chances well when he curled in this beauty at Newcastle United in October (Remember, he was pretty emphatic that it was a shot for those who think that he was attempting to cross the ball):
* That's more of a collective deficiency rather than blaming a single individual.
via Beautifully Red
In a piece for ESPN in February, Musa Okwonga did well to describe what might be Cleverley's biggest strength as a player:
'Cleverley's key asset is his speed of thought on the ball. His ability to exchange incisive passes at the highest tempo is why he is so rare, and so highly rated by Hodgson and Sir Alex Ferguson. A famous and enduring example of this quality is Nani's equaliser against Manchester City in the 2011 Community Shield, where Cleverley was a swift and nimble architect of one of the goals of the season.'
Remember the part about Cleverley having the ability to be quick and clever with his exchanges near the penalty box? The goal against City that Okwonga refers to does well to display that:
In the latter half of the season, Cleverley's influence increasingly faded. It's not entirely certain why that is because his form -- which had ranged from very solid to adequate for the first-half of the season -- hadn't drastically regressed. In addition, besides the instances when Ferguson decided on using the combative Phil Jones in midfield in order to do a very specific tactical and defensive job, Cleverley appeared to be the best option in midfield to regularly partner Carrick. Instead, the likes of striker Wayne Rooney and winger/sort-of central-midfielder Ryan Giggs were often being selected. There was some late-season speculation that Ferguson wasn't thrilled with some of Cleverley's off-the-pitch behavior or his attitude, but none of that is certain.
By season's end, Cleverley had made 32 total appearances, and most of them were respectable enough. He didn't end the season, though, the same way he started it: as a clear first-choice player. It was a moderately successful season for the England international and if I were asked to give him a rating for it, I'd go with a 6.5/10.
Cleverley will be 24-years-old in August and he's now been given nearly every opportunity in the past two years in order to convince United that he should be a stalwart in the side. While he's exhibited, at the very least, that he can be a useful squad member for a title-winning side, he's yet to stamp his authority in midfield. If he had done so, the club might not be so boldly pursuing gifted 22-year-olds like Thiago Alcantara** while presumably promising the Barcelona midfielder guaranteed playing time at Old Trafford.
** Okay, the club still might because Thiago is pretty damn good. However, had Cleverley performed at a higher level these past few years, the Spaniard's possible arrival would feel much more harsh on the Englishman.
The England international should be an important player next season, but he likely won't be a first-choice player at the beginning of it again if United close the deal with the more talented Thiago. Even if the Spaniard isn't brought in, it's very likely that Cleverley will be competing with another summer midfield signing or two for a first-choice role alongside Carrick. The soon-to-be 24-year-old needs to continue improving -- particularly in extending his passing-range and becoming more clinical with his finishing -- while he's also reaching an age where he needs to display that he has the quality to be a long-term player at United.