Honest endeavour can't mask Tom Cleverley's shortcomings
If ever a moment summed up Tom Cleverley’s status as Manchester United's Marmite man, it came midway through the first half of this Champions League defeat against Olympiakos.
Playing in a holding midfield role alongside Michael Carrick, Cleverley produced a crucial tackle on the edge of the penalty area to deny Ivan Marcano a clear strike on goal.
It was a bold and risky challenge, one which characterised the 24-year-old’s team ethic, but the England midfielder timed it just right and Nemanja Vidic was able to clear the ball to safety.
Seconds later, however, the ball came back to Cleverley and, with time to pick a pass, he instead scuffed it into the path of midfielder Alejandro Dominguez to gift Olympiakos another raid on David de Gea’s goal.
Even though he will doubtless be named in Roy Hodgson’s 30-man squad for next week’s Wembley friendly against Denmark, Cleverley does not receive the recognition or respect that an England international would once have expected from his own club’s supporters.
There is no middle ground when it comes to terrace opinion on the home-grown player who Sir Alex Ferguson heralded, just two years ago, as “potentially the best midfielder in Britain”.
There are those who admire his honesty, energy and commitment, but the majority now appear to view the Bradford-born scurrier as a liability – a player who is not particularly strong in the tackle, lacks passing vision and contributes few goals.
When he plays further forward, he has the ability to create a chance and deliver dangerous balls – as he did with a cross early in the second half – but in the deeper role, he falls into the tap of sideways passes.
Cleverley claimed in a recent interview that he felt he had become a “scapegoat” for many supporters looking for somebody to blame for the team’s failings. But while he has his critics, it would be wide of the mark to suggest that dartboards across Manchester are now decorated with Tom Cleverley photographs.
Cleverley is just one of many who have fallen short at United this season, but while some of his team-mates have underperformed, perhaps his biggest fault is that he is not up to the standard required.
There is no doubting his readiness to put in the hard yards, but as Roy Keane watched on from the stands inside the Karaiskakis Stadium, the Irishman’s presence offered a reminder that Manchester United are about more than honest endeavour.
Keane has become the yardstick by which all United midfielders are now measured, even though the club have won five league titles and a Champions League since he left Old Trafford in November 2005.
Nobody cites Carrick as the totemic midfielder for all future players to emulate, but the England midfielder has built an illustrious honours list since taking Keane’s No16 shirt in the summer of 2006.
Carrick lacks the forceful personality of Keane, though. He is also not in the same league as Paul Ince in that respect or Nicky Butt and David Beckham. Carrick’s meek attempt to dispossess Joel Campbell prior to the Olympiakos’s second goal was evidence of another chink in his armour.
Whether Cleverley’s development has been stunted by playing alongside Carrick rather than a more physically commanding presence such as Keane or Ince is a subject for debate. However, the reality is that, at 24, Cleverley has not kicked on as Ferguson suggested he might and, having been a regular in Hodgson’s teams during World Cup qualifying, he faces an anxious wait to see whether he will go to Brazil.
Cleverley started this game ahead of Marouane Fellaini, the £27.5million signing who impressed on his return from injury against Crystal Palace on Saturday, so he clearly retains the faith of David Moyes. But speak to anyone who matters at Old Trafford and they will tell you that the summer will be busy with big-money signings and high-profile departures.
So it does not bode well for Cleverley, replaced by Shinji Kagawa after an hour. His position is among those most in need of an upgrade.