Cleverley gives England an Olympic legacy
The Manchester United and Team GB midfielder's stirring performance in Moldova reminds manager of Cesc Fabregas at his most effective
The curious international career of Tom Cleverley is only two caps old but already it could be argued that the 23-year-old has come to epitomise a modern phenomenon in English football: he has established himself in the England team without quite having done so with his club side, Manchester United.
Of course, once Wayne Rooney returns from injury, the No 10 role that Cleverley has been given by Roy Hodgson for England's two games since Euro 2012, including Friday's 5-0 win over Moldova in the first 2014 World Cup qualifier, will, in all likelihood, go back to his United team-mate.
Nevertheless, his promotion with England has been rapid since the summer in Ukraine and Hodgson, on the evidence of this week, rates him highly.
The England manager was moved to compare Cleverley to Cesc Fabregas for the manner in which he worked as an attacking midfielder behind Jermain Defoe and later Danny Welbeck on Friday night in Chisinau. His nimble feet and willingness to get the ball moving quickly in and around the Moldova penalty area were a significant factor in the game, although it barely needs saying there will be tougher tests.
Cleverley may well hang on to his place to win his third cap against Ukraine on Tuesday, in what will be his first performance at Wembley for England. Not a bad week's work for a man who started last season so brightly until injury stopped his progress. Should he return to Manchester on Wednesday having won his third England cap, it will be interesting to see whether he features in Sir Alex Ferguson's United team to play Wigan Athletic on Saturday.
At United, the competition is a little steeper in central midfield, including, as it does, Paul Scholes, Shinji Kagawa, Michael Carrick (just a substitute for England on Friday), Anderson and possibly now Rooney when it comes to the role behind Robin van Persie. Cleverley has played just 13 League games for United.
It would undoubtedly be more were it not for injury last season, but even so it represents only the start of a club career. Fortunately for Cleverley, Hodgson has said he will select players who are not necessarily a part of their club sides.
"I suppose you could say Tom Cleverley is an attacking midfield player but he's an attacking midfield player in the same way Cesc Fabregas is," Hodgson said. "He's quite capable of coming back into a central midfield role and quite capable of winning the ball when necessary. I think it would be wrong to label him as a type of player.
"For me he's just a good midfielder 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."
If there is one player who has really benefited from being part of the Team GB side at the Olympics it is Cleverley, whose performances in that tournament have been referred to more than once by Hodgson. At that time, post-European Championship, when the England manager was keen to make changes but needed the reassurance that he could go into the World Cup qualifiers with a reliable group of players, Cleverley ticked all the boxes.
"The Olympics was where I sort of discovered him," Hodgson said. "I knew him when he was at Watford [on loan in 2009-10] 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.
"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." Cleverley is one of a group of players who should, in theory, be well-established in the team by the time the 2014 World Cup finals come around, providing England have qualified. But there is still much work to do. The old guard, particularly Lampard and Gerrard, seem in no mood to chuck it in yet and Friday was a demonstration of how much the team relies on that pair.
There was some encouragement from Gerrard for Cleverley, who refers to his team-mate as "only a young boy" in spite of the fact that Gerrard himself was barely out of his teens when he became an international.
"He's going to be a good player," Gerrard said. "Games like this will be fantastic experience for him. He's playing for one of the biggest clubs in Europe and he's broken into the England team so he's got a fantastic future. It's important when you're young to be able to play in a couple of different positions. It helps you get into starting elevens."
The big question, however, is what happens to Cleverley when Rooney comes back. "We'll have to wait and see," Gerrard said. Those established stars remain the obstacle for the young generation who hope to push into Hodgson's team ahead of 2014, and not just at club level.
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