Tom Cleverley is fertile ground for cynics, and it would be reasonable to assert that he’s invited this upon himself in apparently choosing to embrace narcissism where authenticity would have served him better. Cynics are, after all, hopeless romantics with cripplingly high moral and ethical (and mostly hypocritical) standards, that the modern footballer couldn’t possibly hope to live up to. But aligned with this cynicism aimed at Tom Cleverley, often comes blame; blame for United’s current plight, seeded within the lack of a midfield of note – which I think is unfair. It’s true that the emotions which accompany any loss creates scapegoats and there isn’t much that still hurts United fans more – in a footballing sense – than the loss of Roy Keane (especially as the club outright refuses to adequately replace him, and the more protracted the non-attempt becomes the worser it gets). It’s instinctive to lay blame, it’s overwhelming, and whether appropriated correctly or not – with the Glazers, who we know are ultimately responsible, appearing deaf to the noise – it’s almost the only relief from those emotions. But because, as football fans, we never really stop blaming (the referee, the fourth official, the rules, the weather, a dodgy pint, a butterfly flapping its wings, a pube on an ice-cream) we never allow ourselves the time to stop and realise just how irrelevant it is. It ushers in a failure of sympathy towards players – players just like Tom Cleverley.
One of the things repeatedly levelled at the modern footballer, of which Tom Cleverley is very much one the last time I looked, is that “they’re getting paid X-amount of money, so should be playing an F-load better”. This suggests that what any given player offers at any given time is finite (that they’re nothing more than vending machines): a flawed concept – it doesn’t take into account the unique circumstances any one individual inhabits. For example, Tom Cleverley’s ‘breakthrough season’ at United was dogged by injury, making it difficult to carry through any kind of form, or develop. Tom Cleverley has also recently become a dad, shifting the priorities in his life (at least you’d hope so). He plays for Manchester United, a club that currently has a real problem with the concept of midfield, a club that have let down all of their playing staff with its lack of serious and considered intention to improve where it is failing. A club now going through a lot of change, which effects everyone.
You can try and star in midfield, but you cant do it on your own; players need to be coalesced. As gifted as the players we’ve had (and there have been plenty better than Tom Cleverley) in the past twenty years have been, they’ve still needed Eric’s poise, or a Roy Keane thrust to get them a result. A team needs these sorts of players, these ‘leaders’. Tom Cleverley is not a leader (in the old fashioned, yet still important sense), none of the midfielders in the squad are (Carrick is a leader by example; Fletcher too). The only perceived leaders left in the United side have their own problems: Evra, Rooney (leader lols), Vidic, who’s running down his contract, Rio’s limping down his.
Fergie said lots of things that we don’t need to remember (unless we’re remembering in order to enable the forgetting), but he did once say that nostalgia plays tricks on us* (*that’s some irony). Nostalgia would have us believe that Roy Keane would be eyeballing Vieira in the tunnel before every game, not just the Arsenal ones, or dragging us through to the Champions League final even when we were playing in the second round of the League Cup against York City. Scholesy would be volleying in from corners against Barcelona every week, and celebrating whilst hitting a player on the head who’s having a piss by a tree on the other side of the world. These moments, that encapsulate what these players came to represent, inform how we remember them. These things weren’t happening all the time and there were periods with these two in the team when we weren’t winning, and weren’t dominating. And though achieving just half of what they could do, and did do, on the pitch would make you some force, they weren’t, in every instance they took to the pitch, the Roy Keane and Paul Scholes that we compare the likes of Tom Cleverley to. It’s only on reflection, after a reasonable period of time, that we can really assess any player’s contribution (see also: Darren Fletcher).
I’ve seen Tom Cleverley when playing instinctively – not just in the past, but this very season – and his ability to shift a ball around is enviable, and something that very few players I’ve seen are capable of doing at the pace he does, and so I find it a little premature to be writing his United obituary just yet. However, when given time on the ball, habits of an altogether different nature surface: at times when Tom Cleverley passes the ball, he really passes it. He wants you to know he’s passing it: “Look at me passing this ball in that direction” the follow-through and accompanying body language shouts. This, for me, isn’t about technique, ’tis mere trompe l’oeil; style over substance. Just ‘cus you look like you’re passing it doesn’t mean you’re actually passing it passing it. When he does shape his body in this more affected way he tends to make a right mess of it. Superficial affectations like these continue to creep into the game: where once players were primarily concerned with playing good, they are now compelled to want to look good doing it; and they perhaps end up playing a role, and forget to be it.
There’s no doubt that narcissism has warped ambition: ‘I want to play at the top level’ becomes ‘I want to be a top level player’. The latter entails an image of what being a top level player looks like, the former is prepared to work hard, to persevere (different to Van Persievere, where you try quite hard for a bit to win something with one team and then switch club when you’ve had enough of the trying quite hard, and win something with another team), to recognise weaknesses and work on them, use them as a source of strength; they set themselves personal goals so that the application of their talent never lacks ambition. Perhaps the latter, the one who wants ‘to be a top level player’, having already won the Premier League winners medal and gotten himself into the England team – more than most players achieve – sees that as enough? I think he needs the club to invest in some proper players to help him decide.