United midfielder at forefront of young players to be blooded on the road to Brazil, writes Jason Burt
And so another young Manchester United midfielder with a flash haircut and an interest in fashion makes a big impression on his first competitive start for England in that unassuming football backwater of Moldova.
But there was a more arresting comparison than the obvious one between Tom Cleverley and David Beckham and it was one that was accepted by England manager Roy Hodgson when it was offered to him soon after the 23-year-old had performed, well, so cleverly in England's 5-0 victory over Moldova to kickstart Group H.
Hodgson, not normally a man given to building up players unnecessarily, didn't balk at the proposal that Cleverley could be compared to Cesc Fabregas who may be having a hard time in Barcelona right now -- after being overlooked by the new coach Tito Vilanova -- but whose worth in the Premier League and in Spain remains unquestionable.
Fabregas also represents a new breed of adaptable midfielder, one who can also play the so-called false No 9 striker role as he did to great effect at the Euro 2012 finals as well as play deeper at times. Beckham made his first appearance for England in Glenn Hoddle's debut game in charge against Moldova in September 1996 when a comfortable 3-0 win was earned.
England topped that in Chisinau on Friday evening, matching the previous scoreline by half-time and then exceeding it to give a healthy gloss to their goal difference and a sheen to the start of this campaign.
On the road to Rio, Hodgson will be expected to fuse some of the burgeoning young talent alongside the maligned 'old guard' who, unsurprisingly given his track record for trusting older players, retain his faith. Cleverley is key to this by playing centrally, as England's most advanced midfielder, tasked with getting close to the striker, Jermain Defoe.
It also allows Hodgson to move away from the rigidity of 4-4-2, which may have served him well during his long career but has been usurped at international level and is lacking in dimension. He can now bring more flexibility to the midfield, which can become 4-4-1-1 or a more defensive 4-5-1.
"Well, he plays in that position for Manchester United as well," Hodgson said. In truth, the arrival of Shinji Kagawa at the club and with Alex Ferguson deploying other attackers and tactics, Cleverley is often found in a deeper role. He has only consistently played in advanced positions at clubs where he has been on loan such as Leicester City, Watford and more recently at Premier League Wigan Athletic.
But Hodgson was adamant -- and given the success Cleverley enjoyed in Moldova where his energy movement and eye for a pass was highly effective -- was justified in adding: "Cleverley, I suppose you could say is an attacking midfield player but he's an attacking midfield player in the same way Cesc Fabregas is. He's quite capable of coming back into a central midfield role and quite capable, even, of coming back to win a ball when it's necessary. I think it would be wrong to label what type of player he is.
"For me, he is just a good midfield player and he took, I suppose, a bit more responsibility for getting closer to Defoe and allowing Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard to get on the ball in deeper positions where they are comfortable."
Cleverley is, in more ways than one, at the vanguard of the young players Hodgson is intent on blooding on the road to the World Cup finals in Brazil in 2014, having resisted the strong calls for wholesale changes.
Hodgson's defiance was made easier by injuries to the likes of Jack Wilshere, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, although there was some dismay that Danny Welbeck started among the substitutes and Kyle Walker remained on the bench.
In a city where visitors are advised to carry a torch because the street lighting is so poor, England found some extra illumination.
"I'm very pleased with the other young ones when they came on -- Walcott and Welbeck," Hodgson said, reminding everyone that the former, despite an international career starting in 2006 is still just 23 even if he appears to have fallen behind Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the reckoning.
"I think it's nice to know with so many players absent, with so many players that are experienced, who really would have been key members of our squad -- Ashley Cole for one, Gareth Barry, Wayne Rooney, the list goes on.
"Not to mention the Young and Smalling and all these players... Carroll. I think it was fantastic, given the squad we had, that everyone stepped up to the plate. The senior players are still playing with the same aplomb as they did during the Euros but it's nice to see we've got a few new faces coming onto the scene and challenging for places."
Cleverley's development is crucial. Unlike Oxlade-Chamberlain, who can also play centrally, he has not asserted himself on a consistent basis.
This was his touchstone performance. Now people know what he is about. There were concerns, indeed, that he was in danger of being sidetracked -- having launched his own website after just five appearances for United, having become quickly aware of the commercial possibilities of the social network site, Twitter, and developing the so-called TC23 brand.
Maybe he used United team-mate Rio Ferdinand as a role model but in fairness the defender can reflect on a career of achievement and trophies before he became quite so entrepreneurial. Hodgson suggested that Cleverley's inclusion in the Team GB football squad at the Olympics -- despite the ultimate disappointment -- may have been a watershed moment in his development. He has also forced his way back into the United team after a career that has been hampered by injuries.
After all, Fabio Capello, Hodgson's predecessor, had been keen to promote Cleverley and included him in several of his squads.
"I think it probably did," Hodgson said when asked whether the Olympics had represented a breakthrough.
"It was important for me as well because that's where I sort of discovered him. I knew him when he was at Watford and I'd seen him play a couple of times, and I'd seen him play a few games as substitute for Manchester United.
"But, don't forget, he got injured very early in the previous season. So, I suppose the Olympics was the opportunity for me, really, to cast the rule over him -- and it was good that I could do that because it means that when we're selecting squads now for the World Cup campaign he was one of the names I wanted to add to my list."
What was also pleasing for Hodgson is that England have started the campaign with the same intent on qualifying efficiently that was displayed under Capello and also Sven-Goran Eriksson although so poor were Moldova -- somehow ranked as 'high' as 141st in the world -- that they may rival San Marino as the weakest opponent in a group that also contains Poland and Montenegro.
But it is not just about qualifying for England, although nobody will lose sight of that target. It is about shape and method and signs of progress in the type of football pursued and a hope that if Brazil is reached then England might offer a more competitive challenge than they did against Italy, just a few months ago, and in previous tournaments. There were, indeed, signs of enlightenment.
Sunday Indo Sport