x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Manchester United's Tom Cleverley is the most overrated player

David Moyes should not ignore yet another dismal performance from the central midfielder, writes Richard Jolly.

Manchester United’s Tom Cleverly seems to have been picking up minutes without really impressing at Old Trafford in recent years. Andrew Powell / Getty Images
Manchester United’s Tom Cleverly seems to have been picking up minutes without really impressing at Old Trafford in recent years. Andrew Powell / Getty Images

Imagine opening a newspaper one day and seeing your job advertised. Then imagine opening every newspaper many times and seeing your replacements being lined up.

Perhaps that is how it feels to be Tom Cleverley. Publicly, he has said he pays little attention to paper talk. Maybe that is true, but the reality is that Manchester United have spent the summer pursuing central midfielders.

From Thiago Alcantara to Ander Herrera, via Cesc Fabregas, Daniele de Rossi and Marouane Fellaini, the quest has been on to add creativity, goal-scoring prowess or physical power.

Not noted for offering any of them, sympathy for Cleverley may be limited, especially considering the evidence compiled at Anfield on Sunday. Steven Gerrard dominated, Cleverley frustrated, and like virtually every major defeat United have suffered in recent years, it could be traced to failings at the heart of the midfield.

It is a department where United have long lacked the athleticism and potency virtually every other leading club has possessed. While Michael Carrick was deservedly short-listed for the PFA Player of the Year award last season, there has been a situation vacant alongside him since age meant Paul Scholes's technical brilliance was undermined by his lack of mobility.

Cleverley has been propelled to prominence by a process of elimination: Scholes's two retirements, Darren Fletcher's chronic bowel complaint, which has rendered him a spectator for much of the last two-and-a-half years, Sir Alex Ferguson's eagerness to promote from within and his astonishing reluctance to spend in the centre of midfield.

Anderson and Owen Hargreaves, bought in 2007, were his last purchases. Factor in the advanced years of the remnants of England's inappropriately nicknamed "golden generation", Roy Hodgson's eagerness to unearth a younger midfielder and Jack Wilshere's injury problems and Cleverley has, by default, become a regular for club and country. But as a first choice for United and England, he also been the most overrated player in England.

He was afforded too much credit for United's superb start two years ago when Wayne Rooney, Ashley Young and Nani were rather more responsible for their goal glut and when, by straying so far forward, Cleverley hardly shielded the defence.

Since then, he has reinvented himself as Carrick Lite, sitting alongside the older Englishman but proving a less-penetrative passer and lacking his astute reading of the game.

By the end of his reign, Ferguson's finest options alongside Carrick appeared to be a defender (Phil Jones), a striker (Rooney) and an aging winger (Ryan Giggs, 39).

Even in pre-season, there were hints that manager David Moyes was impressed by Anderson. Yet it was Cleverley who began the campaign, just as he featured most frequently last season.

At least Moyes recognised the weakness at the heart of his team. The attempt to make Fabregas the club-record signing tied in with his oft-repeated insistence that United should be interested in the world's best players. That Cleverley has two goals and three assists in his Premier League career for United and the Spaniard guarantees an annual double-figure return in both categories illustrates the difference between them. United's central midfielders, as Moyes recognised, were outscored by their rivals elsewhere. Yet if a superstar could not be signed, the task was simply to find someone superior to Cleverley. Truth be told, it should notbe that hard, simply because there are so many of them out there.

Arguably, Tottenham Hotspur have signed four within 13 months. Mousa Dembele, Paulinho, Etienne Capoue and Christian Eriksen are different types of central midfielders, but the common denominator is quality.

And it was something United lacked at Anfield. With Rooney injured, with Shinji Kagawa out of favour and lacking full fitness, their midfielders and forwards could be divided into two categories.

There are the pedigree players – Carrick, Giggs and Robin van Persie – whose right to wear the red shirt goes unquestioned. And there are the other trio to start: Cleverley, Young and Danny Welbeck, all better suited to roles as squad players.

Indeed, Moyes could be forgiven for thinking back to his Everton team where the men who filled the same roles - Leon Osman, Steven Pienaar and Fellaini - and comparing his new charges unfavourably with his old players.

In a trial by comparison, whether with opponents or supposed successors, Cleverley has been found wanting too often.


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