Overrated Tom Must Prove He's Clever Enough For The Big Time


I'm not having Tom Cleverley. I simply cannot understand what all the fuss is about with him.

Inexplicably, Cleverley will start for England against Germany at Wembley this evening, his 12th appearance for the Three Lions in the past 18 months. He will play in his preferred position of central midfield, and he will attempt to convince the England coaching staff that he has what it takes to make it onto the plane to Brazil next summer. 

Frankly, it's something of an anomaly that he is even in the England senior squad, let alone being given another chance to stake his claim.

Thomas William Cleverley was born in 1989 in Basingstoke, Hampshire. After his father, a banker, was relocated to Bradford, young Tom started to excel on the muddy school pitches of West Yorkshire. Small, but brave and brimming, Cleverley first earned a spot in Bradford City's youth setup and was later inducted into Manchester United's esteemed academy, just before his 12th birthday. 

Cleverley dazzled all who saw him at United's academy. He would develop into a technically proficient footballer with a penchant for taking risks and carving out opportunities in attacking areas - valued traits that young English players are all too often lacking. Such qualities elevated his reputation throughout the game and impressive loan spells at Leicester, Watford and Wigan did nothing to stunt his ascent. 

But fast forward to today, a fair chunk into his third season in the first team squad at Old Trafford, and the cheeky chappy from Bradford has regressed as a footballer. His dynamism has been substituted by conservatism; his risk-taking replaced by a lingering self doubt. 

Where once we saw a great white hope of creativity and class, we now see a faded example of what happens when you coach the verve and initiative out of a young player.

To all intents and purposes, Cleverley is now a horizontal operator, who maintains possesion when called upon, but habitually moves it sideways and backwards. A tidy player, of that there's no doubt, but a perennial buck-passer at the same time. Today's Cleverley doesn't commit defenders, he seldom plays defence-splitting passes, and he's scored just two Premier League goals in 40 appearances. 

There will be those that claim it isn't his job to score or create goals. But then what is exactly is his job? 

It's difficult to interpret what it is Cleverley has that has earned him regard from some of the game's top managers. Sir Alex Ferguson and Roy Hodgson cannot both be wrong, can they?

What I'm really struggling to appreciate is where Cleverley's attributes place him in terms of his footballing profile or identity. Can you, for example, name a top player that he has the potential and skillset to emulate?  

He doesn't dribble and probe like an Iniesta. He doesn't work angles in his passing like Xavi or dictate the pace of a game like Paul Scholes. He doesn't serve as an omnipresent outlet like Arsenal's Mikel Arteta, who knits the game together from deep areas. He doesn't move intelligently into pockets of space like Mesut Ozil. And, he certainly isn't a lock-picker or would-be trequartista like David Silva.

I am not suggesting Cleverley should ever be as good as any of these players. All players are different, of course. But when you cannot compare an England international's profile to that of any top player in the current game, there must be cause for concern, and ultimately question marks over his influence on the game.

Cleverley is none of these players - he is a hybrid, who is pretty good at a lot of things but not brilliant at anything. There is room at the top level for players like this, but they need to justify their inclusion by bringing something else to the party. Phil Neville brought his versatility and fierce competitive edge and James Milner brings his industry and tactical acumen. Hell, even Jordan Henderson has lung-bursting, box-to-box energy in his arsenal. Meanwhile, Tom Cleverley has very little extra in his locker.

In three seasons, Cleverley has started just 29 Premier League matches for Manchester United. He has made a significant impact in barely a handful of those. And yet he appears to be an automatic pick each time Roy Hodgson names an England squad. Ask yourself this: if he was playing as few games and performing at the same mediocre level for a traditional mid-table top-flight club, would he be considered for international honours?   

Of course I am building myself up for an almighty fall should he star against Germany tonight. But I can't see that he will. Aside from his lack of identity as a player, Cleverley strikes me as a classic homer. The kind of footballer who is at his best only when the odds and conditions are stacked in his favour. His only above average display in the white of England was in the trouncing of San Marino last October. With all due respect to them, I could've played with distinction in central midfield that night. 

There is light at the end of the tunnel. He has not become a bad, inhibited player overnight. But nor will he become a confident, risk-taking attacking force at the drop of a hat. Cleverley would do well to remember what it felt like to play with freedom and verve in his early days, and then demonstrate that he has the courage and talent to replicate that on the big stage.

Only then should he be anywhere near the plane to Brazil. Indeed, only then will I understand what all the fuss is about.

Bet on Tom Cleverley and England against Germany tonight.   

Read more from Unibet columnist Ben Cove.