Cristiano Ronaldo arguably scored his greatest goal for Manchester United against Porto in 2009. It was a fantastic strike from forty yards out, but Ronaldo’s movement must not be overlooked; the forward had made the ‘false nine’ role his own during that season, dropping off the front to find the space and time needed to line up that shot.
Anderson, however, was credited with an assist for making a five-yard lateral pass to the Portuguese. There really is no way of differentiating a ‘good’ assist from a ‘bad’ assist from a statistical point of view. Beauty in this case is very much in the eye of the beholder.
Spurred on by Michael Lewis’ excellent Moneyball, just about every club of note, in all sports, now boasts a data analysis department, and analysts differ wildly on how they evaluate players and tactics.
Statistics can be beguiling. Wayne Rooney, for example, has enjoyed two exemplary seasons in terms of goals and assists, but his performances have been subpar at best. Take Paul Scholes in recent seasons – he epitomises imagination and creativity in his passing, but his assist statistic is dwarfed by Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard.
So in judging Tom Cleverley, should one look beyond the meager five assists and two goals he has managed since his introduction to the Manchester United first team in 2011? After all, he has mainly been deployed deep in central midfield where opportunities for killer balls and shots are limited. Although Michael Carrick, who plays deeper still, has racked up five assists and two goals in each of past two seasons.
In the 23-year-old’s Cleverley’s defense Carrick played a lot more often. Still, it is hard to picture Cleverley in the first team. While his stamina and work-rate are commendable, the Basingstoke-born player’s injury proneness is notorious. His height and muscularity offer little in the way of physical strength and he is not particularly quick.
In fact, Cleverley’s lack of speed greatly limits his potential on the wings. He simply doesn’t have the pace to succeed as a traditional winger in the mold of Antonio Valencia. Yet, he has been used on the left by Sir Alex Ferguson and at Wigan and Watford as an inverted winger.
During the two seasons in which Cleverley was deployed in wide roles he managed a goal per roughly ten shots – in line with Ashley Young or Antonio Valencia’s record. It begs a question, with stamina, a great tactical mind and willingness to work hard, could Cleverley can become another Ji-sung Park?
Given Cleverley’s ability on the ball, he also remains a decent option on the wings as an inverted winger directly attacking the defenders or, like Ryan Giggs, used to retain possession.Yet, with reinforcements likely this summer it is hard to see Cleverley breaking into the first team on the flanks.
Indeed, Cleverley’s ability on the ball is excellent. Schooled by Rene Meulensteen, he controls the ball well in tight quarters and engages in high tempo short passing game. This has placed him at the tip of the England national team midfield. The Englishman perhaps lacks incision in the traditional number 10, vis-à-vis penetrative through balls, but makes up for it by setting up one-twos. Crucially, he quickens the pace of the game.
David Moyes had emphasised quick transition during his time at Everton. Quick transition, as practiced by Real Madrid and Dortmund, is essentially long-ball football played on the ground. The Scot, who set up his Everton teams to concentrate playing in the opposition half, might greatly appreciate Tom Cleverley if it wasn’t for Shinji Kagawa’s presence in the United squad.
At Dortmund, Kagawa was often excused from all defensive duties and allowed to concentrate on sniffing out spaces to launch counterattacks. Jurgen Klopp, unlike Ferguson, had the Japanese run onto the ball – at United, the players pass the ball into Kagawa’s feet. With the ball in front of him, Kagawa just needs to apply the final touch. When the ball is coming to his feet, Kagawa has to twist and turn before making his move.
Kagawa epitomises quick transition football as practiced by Dortmund and there is every chance that Moyes will see the Japanese as key should the incoming United manager decide to continue with his football philosophy. This means that Cleverley will not be claiming the central attacking midfield spot as his own.
Moyes is also fanatical about width. Rafael da Silva and Patrice Evra are excellent attacking full-backs and there is every chance that the former Everton manager will allow them to push forward and overload the flanks.
But with two attacking full-backs, United’s central midfield will be set up more defensively. Rafael Benitez, who probably knows more about 4-2-3-1 than any other manager on the planet, argues that with “offensive full-backs, you have to find that right balance. [You need two holding midfielders].”
There is very little point in deploying Cleverley as a defensive midfielder for the Englishman is all about movement and tempo. With Carrick there to provide quick, incisive balls to the wingers and full-backs, Cleverley will be redundant.
In the past season Rooney has shouldered a lot of ball winning responsibilities and allowed Ferguson to field two passers in the middle. Should Rooney leave the club, and Kagawa offered an important role, United will need a genuine defensive player in midfield to partner Carrick.
With the squad set up more or less for 4-2-3-1, Moyes will probably ‘go with the flow’ and make just minor changes to the football philosophy. After all, it’s foolhardy to impose something totally different on a successful squad used to doing things a certain way.
This is bad news for Cleverley. His versatility is admirable, but ultimately he is a jack of all trades rather than a bona fide master of any. Barring drastic changes on Moyes’ part, Cleverley will not cement a first team place next season.