Tom Cleverley is 23 years old. That might not seem old to you or me, but in modern footballing terms he should be reaching his peak, and at least be established as a reliable performer.
He is just three years younger than Wayne Rooney and two years the junior of Lionel Messi, with all that they have achieved individually. By the same age, Andres Iniesta had made 175 appearances for Barcelona and had five major domestic honours. Cesc Fabregas had played over 250 times for Arsenal. Clearly these are comparisons with vaulted talents, but as a midfielder for Manchester United, are these not the levels to which a player must aspire?
It therefore comes as something of a surprise to realise that Cleverley has made just nineteen appearances for Manchester United. Danny Welbeck, two years younger than Cleverley, has made more than double the amount of appearances. All of this combines to draw the conclusion that Cleverley has not yet achieved a great deal. Players are not remembered for impressions made on loan at Leicester City, Watford and Wigan. If Cleverley wishes to shine, that time must be now. However, questions remain as to quite where he would flourish.
Cleverley is certainly not a replacement for Roy Keane, a position many Manchester United fans feel has still not been adequately filled, and the midfielder's development may have suffered due, in part, to this mindset. Despite Fergie's reluctance to agree, supporters still feel that their side is in need of a defensive midfielder, pronouncing that their team lacks a degree of solidity that Cleverley fails to provide.
In fact, the role of the tough-tackling midfielder has diminished within the Premier League in recent times. Nigel de Jong and Michael Essien have been allowed to depart by Manchester City and Chelsea, and the emergence of all-action midfielders in the Yaya Toure mould is seen to be the preference, particularly for sides that expect to retain the majority of possession. In fact, of the Premier League achievers last season, only Spurs (Scott Parker) and Newcastle (Cheik Tiote) utilised true holding midfielders. The Claude Makelele role, made so famous in the last decade, seems to be being gradually phased out.
In fact, Darren Fletcher's absence at Old Trafford may have hampered Cleverley's progress. The Scottish international, whilst certainly not akin to Keane, provides a bite in midfield that Michael Carrick simply does not. His absence through illness meant that Cleverley was restricted somewhat from operating in the final third for United, and often not operating at all.
Not only did Fletcher's presence initially allow Cleverley to start the game against Newcastle in the Capital One Cup, having been benched for United's last three games, but it seems no coincidence that Cleverley was able to score United's second goal (also guilty of missing an earlier chance), creating two further chances for United team mates. Performing in an advanced playmaker role ahead of Carrick and Anderson, it was Cleverley's first goal for the club.
If this playmaker solution is Cleverley's natural position at club level, his initial forays into the international game match such a thought process. Again comparatively late to the fold, Roy Hodgson used him in a no.10 role against Moldova and Ukraine for his first two caps, utilising his neat passing to act as a pivot between midfield and attack. With just these two pieces of evidence (and Jack Wilshere to presumably return) it is too early to make sweeping conclusions, but it seems both manager and captain Steven Gerrard were suitably impressed. "He's done a good job. Tom can also play as a conventional midfielder, remember, and it's important when you're young and starting out to be able to play in a couple of different positions," said Gerrard.
The flexibility to which Gerrard alludes raises an interesting issue. In England, fans and media pigeon hole players very quickly. Every new Chelsea central defender will be the 'new John Terry', in exactly the same way as Jack Wilshere was the new Cesc Fabregas just two years ago. During youth development, players are forced to choose a position in which they then invariably remain for their entire career. Is Cleverley's versatility therefore not refreshing, hinting at a continental quality allowing him to be confident in a variety of positions?
Certainly he played on the wing at Wigan and has played across the midfield at United, comfortable operating both behind and ahead of the ball. Is there not room for a player at England and Manchester United that has the ability to switch between differing midfield positions? Rather than the new Scholes or new Keane, maybe this is simply the only Tom Cleverley.
That is certainly the opinion of Roberto Martinez, who took Cleverley on loan to Wigan. "He can play in many positions and he is happy to be in one-v-one situations offensively and defensively, that's where he's got real variation. He is someone who could fit into the Dutch or Spanish way of playing quite easily."
However, the evident danger for Cleverley is the establishment of a 'jack of all trades' reputation, and through being master of none fail to make sufficient advancement at Old Trafford. He does not possess electric pace and his tackling is merely proficient. Paul Scholes shares those particular characteristics, but his contribution of fifteen league goals in 40 games at the start of his career persuaded both club and country of his considerable importance; he offered (and some may say still continues to offer) more.
Cleverley, meanwhile, has had his finishing criticised by Alex Ferguson. He possesses an impressive range of passing but, very much like a goalkeeper receiving praised for shot-stopping, is this not the least we should expect?
Additionally, there is a great deal of competition for places in the final third at club level, and there is a danger (particularly in English football) that versatility can often equate to a place on the substitutes' bench, acting as back-up for more specialised performers. Such a situation can be the graveyard of footballing progression.
Whatever the case, this is another crucial season for a young English midfielder. Whether through a continental-style trequartista role or impressive adaptability, Cleverley must effectively shift himself from 'potential' to 'proven', a task only possible through consistent selection. Given the multitude of midfield options at Old Trafford, that would appear to be a tough task.