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.
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