Cleverley a symbol of larger midfield woes

Posted by Musa Okwonga

Tom Cleverley has deleted his Twitter account, shortly after giving an interview to The Mirror's Oliver Holt in which he considered that he had been made a scapegoat. The England international has not had a distinguished season, but he believes he has been given a disproportionate amount of criticism. Many commentators consider Cleverley to be a diligent but essentially limited player who has been promoted above his station, and who is being given so many games due to the unacceptably thin nature of Manchester United's squad.

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In Cleverley's defence, he cannot be faulted for his application. Even in his most uncomfortable performances, he works hard throughout, never hiding from possession. The problem, though, is that Cleverley's play -- like that of several of his teammates -- seems to be largely characterised by fear, something he admitted to Holt. "My confidence has been a little bit low at times this season," he said. Anyone who watched Manchester United's 1-0 defeat at home to Newcastle will have seen what he meant -- the ball moving endlessly sideways, with only one pass making its way to the feet of Javier Hernandez the entire match.

Cleverley also contended that "my job goes under the radar at times. I am not a player who's going to beat three or four people and stick it in the top corner or go round tackling people like Roy Keane." Cleverley's assessment of his game is interesting here, because he is effectively stating that his range of skills is relatively narrow for a central midfielder. He does not dribble, he does not tackle, he does not score.

What Cleverley did do well for much of last season -- a season in which, it should be remembered, he was Michael Carrick's best partner in a Premier League-winning midfield -- was shuttle the ball between midfield and attack, while also helping Carrick to circulate the ball at a high tempo. This season, Carrick's form -- when he has not been injured -- has been far worse, and the critics have generally been slower to scrutinise him, perhaps because last year he was so impressive throughout. It may well be then that Cleverley has indeed attracted an unfair share of the blame for the midfield's inadequate state.

The question then turns to who eventually might be Carrick's replacement. The midfielder will be 33 this summer, and may not be due too many more seasons as a regular starter. Superb as he has been at Old Trafford, the search for a successor should begin now.

David Moyes' apparent interest in Toni Kroos and William Carvalho suggests a welcome emphasis on a more muscular approach, and perhaps with a more physical presence in central midfield, the team will see more play directed through that region, and not shifted sharply to the wings. The benefit of having two highly mobile midfield enforcers is that it allows playmakers such as Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and eventually Adnan Januzaj to take centre stage, largely free from defensive responsibility.

Carrick's decline in form, though, throws into focus the sheer scale of the rebuilding work to be done at Old Trafford. At least two central midfielders will be needed, plus at least two new full-backs and two new wingers. The proposed budget of 100 million pounds will be stretched very thin indeed, but there will be immediate questions asked of Moyes if he does not spend most, if not all of it.

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