TACTICAL THOUGHTS: TOM CLEVERLEY

United fans have always had a soft spot for any product of the club’s youth system. A player that comes through from the youth team and makes it as far as the first team is encouraged and to an extent indulged by the Old Trafford faithful who take a particular pleasure in seeing him succeed. As just such a player, Tom Cleverley has had just such a start to his United career.

One can’t help but think, however, that he has reached the point in his career where a harder headed appraisal is called for. With the arrival of David Moyes in the summer and his statements about the need to strengthen the midfield it would appear that Cleverley faces a challenge. This season is a big one for the player.

Having spent loan periods at Leicester City, Watford and a year at Wigan, Cleverley emerged at the start of the 2011-12 season with a game-changing performance from the substitutes’ bench as United came back to beat Manchester City in the Community Shield.  His early season form was excellent and the future looked bright as the team started the season with a more fluid approach than in the previous campaign; then injury struck. The player ruptured his ankle in only the fourth game of the season playing against Bolton. Thereafter his season was greatly disrupted, with a series of attempts to make a comeback.

Last year he made 22 league appearances and 32 appearances in total, but he always left you feeling that he was not living up to his early promise. He is an established squad member, but he is 24 years old and the expectation is that he would have achieved more by now.

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Tom Cleverley is an energetic mobile box-to-box midfield player.  At United he has most often been partnered with Michael Carrick as one of the two deep lying midfield players. In this scenario he would tend to play higher than Carrick and usually to his left. His role is that of the shuttler; required to press the opposition and intercept in higher areas whilst Carrick concentrates on screening the defence from deeper. In summary, Cleverley is required to close down the man whilst Carrick closes down the space. In terms of this allocation of responsibility Cleverley has shown himself to have good defensive discipline; he stays on message. However, his weaknesses in the defensive midfield function mean that he is not a complete success in this role.  Firstly, his size means that he is not the most imposing of players physically and he struggles to effectively press the opposition when their midfield is manned by bigger, stronger players.  His lack of stature also means that he is weak in the air.  His other defensive weakness is that he is often slow to recover his position when the ball has gone past him.  This can lead to him being bypassed after a quick transition, leaving colleagues exposed.

Cleverley has one of the highest average pass completion rates of any United player; he usually records a pass completion rate of 90% or above.  The criticism levelled upon him most frequently though is that not enough of these passes are decisive; too few of them make a difference.  In an attacking sense he is not an imposing player.  He doesn’t seem to grab hold of the game and dictate play.

This would appear to be as a consequence of a couple of weaknesses in his attacking game.

The first of these is that Cleverley has a tendency to get drawn towards the action area almost like a moth to a flame. This creates a problem for his teammates as it greatly reduces Cleverley as a passing option.  It also means that play can become condensed in tight areas.  This was obvious when United recently visited Anfield and Cleverley partnered Carrick in the deep midfield positions as Liverpool employed a high aggressive press. In this sort of situation it is critical that the two midfeld players and the rest of the team work hard to create a passing option for the man in possession. If they don’t, the task of pressing the play becomes simpler for the opposition.   United found themselves unable to stretch the play and so beat this press whilst Liverpool found it fairly easy to close down play and win the ball in high areas.  In the screen shot below you can see how close Cleverley (23) is to Carrick (the man in possession). Cleverley is not really a viable passing option here, as the three Liverpool players closest to Carrick could close Cleverley down instantly upon him receiving the ball.  Cleverley is effectively out of the game.

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The second weakness is the slow speed of Cleverley’s thought and deed, which makes him less effective in high or tight areas anywhere on the pitch.  It is a truism that great players always appear to have more time.  Of course they don’t really – the pitch is the same size for them as it is for any other player – but other factors do come into play.  The most significant of these is that great players know what they are going to do with the ball before they actually receive it.  As they are about to collect a pass they look around to check out the position of team mates and make a decision about what they intend to do before the ball actually arrives at their feet.  If you don’t know what you are going to do with the ball until it arrives the sequence of controlling the ball, looking up, making a decision and then executing the action all combine to slow the game down.  If you look up (or are generally more aware) and make your decision ahead of ball receipt you will have more time and can move the ball on more quickly.  This is clearly preferable and is essential in tight areas.  Cleverley is a skilful player and has good quick feet, which ensure that he rarely loses possession, but these facets of his ability would be far more effective if he thought more quickly.  The consequence is that he is far less effective in the final third than he should be for a player of his ability.

Cleverley thrives in a situation where he has more passing options.  It’s almost as if in that situation his ability to think ahead is not quite such an issue. This is why he has looked a far more effective midfield option when United have employed a midfield three. David Moyes has done this recently on two occasions.  The first was in the derby against City. Let’s forget the first hour.  Cleverley came on as a substitute after 60 minutes and was positioned to the left of Carrick with Fellaini pushing slightly higher.  Of course the game was won for City by this point and they had taken their foot off the gas. Nevertheless this change allowed United to retain the ball for longer and move the ball forward more meaningfully. The midfield was far more effective from this point onward, with Cleverley being an effective part of that as United made progress up the pitch through triangular passing patterns.  After Cleverley’s introduction United enjoyed a far higher proportion of the possession.

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Cleverley in United’s formation at Shakhtar Donetsk and in action on the night

David Moyes also employed a central midfield three in the champions League game at Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League.  With the wide players dropping deep United’s shape could be described as a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-5-1, but the important point is that United had a central midfield three in the middle of the pitch.  This time Carrick played a holding midfield role, patrolling the space in front of the back four.  He formed the base of a V shape with Fellaini ahead to the left and Cleverley ahead to the right.  This suited Cleverley who always had a passing option.  He gave a creditable performance as United came away with a valuable point.  Retaining possession is key in European away games, both to sustain a threat yourself but also to relieve pressure and stop the opposition building up a head of steam.  The effectiveness of the Cleverley’s play in this game helped in this respect; the game was seen as a potentially tricky encounter in a hostile atmosphere.  It didn’t really turn out that way and this was in a large part due to the effectiveness of United’s midfield play (despite Fellaini regularly surrendering possession).

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The feeling persists that if Tom Cleverley is to have a long term, successful career at United he needs to have a bigger impact in games. He has good quick feet, good mobility and retains possession well; it is his reading of the game and speed of thought that must improve if he is to increase his impact. One can’t help but feel that it is now time for him to make this step forward. This is a big season for Tom Cleverley.