CON GAMES—I am now on my knees praying for Tom Cleverley, the young midfielder from Manchester United cast down by undeserved injury early this season just as he was leading the famous side to one of its greatest starts ever. No one else seems to be talking about Cleverley, no one is writing about him, and no one but me, an ’umble Stateside scribe, seems to even know he’s left.
Why do I care? Because Cleverley was alchemical, the magical ingredient to take the bitters out of the whole brew. His importance, paradoxically, goes back to Man U’s offseason pursuit of the ferocious Wesley Sneijder, the attacking Dutch midfielder decamped at Internazionale. With the retirement of Paul Scholes—and the aging of the incomparable Ryan Giggs—Sir Alex Ferguson, the iconic manager of Man U, needed somebody to step into the midfield and revitalize a Premier League champion team deemed moribund after the loss in the finals of the Champion’s League to mighty-mite Lionel Messi and Barcelona.
Without a player the caliber of Sneijder in the midfield, the hole for Manchester United would be massive this season. The central midfielder is the point guard, so to speak, the spoke of the wheel that makes everything turn-turn-turn in the right direction. The Scot Darren Fletcher and the Brazilian Anderson, like Michael Carrick of England, are hard-working but workmanlike, without the wit seen by Fabregas when at Arsenal, Modric at Tottenham, or Xavi at Barcelona. Without a Sneijder or a Fabregas or a Modric or a Xavi, life on the pitch can become quickly aimless and then discombobulating, a dark night of the soul. With the ringmaster in the middle of the ring, the beautiful game can become halcyon overnight.
When Sneijder balked at the transfer, Sir Alex was left with no one to fill that role until Cleverley seemed to magically appear at age 22. But he was no accident: the midfielder has been with Man U since he was 12 and just signed a new contract through 2015. Cleverley had done wonders on loan at Leicester City in 2009-2010, the year that side secured promotion. At Watford he scored 11 goals in 33 games and was voted Player of the Season. Another stretch at Wigan completed his seasoning.
The real magic began this season. He played all of a friendly against Barcelona in the preseason and Sir Alex called him “the best player” on the pitch. He replaced Carrick at halftime of the 2011 Community Shield against Manchester City with Man U down 2-0, and he had an assist to an uncomplaining Nani in a 3-2 comeback win. Sir Alex, no fool, promptly started him in the first Premier League game against Tottenham, no slouch, and he came up with another assist in the 3-0 win.
Then it all came together for Man U and Cleverley against Arsenal. With Cleverley orchestrating—and with the young defender Phil Jones, just 19, barnstorming—Man U beat once-mighty Arsenal 8-2, en epic humiliation. With Cleverley on the pitch, the run against three of the best teams (Man City, Tottenham, Arsenal) was 14-2.
Cleverley hurt ligaments in the next match against Bolton because of a nasty tackle by Kevin Davies—and he has yet to come back. When Man U beat back Bolton 5-0, and a formidable Chelsea, 3-1, it appeared a rookie midfielder would become just an afterthought: it seemed as if Cleverley were merely an accessory to a three-and-a-half game 21-3 run that included routs of three of the best teams in the Barclay’s firmament.
But since then Man U has not been the same side. A pair of lifeless, lackluster 1-1 draws to Stoke City and Liverpool sandwiched a dead-on-arrival 2-0 win over Norwich City. Then came the deluge Sunday against Manchester City, the best team money can buy. If you want to tape-measure the chasm before and after Cleverley’s injury, consider the 8-2 whupping of Arsenal as the before, and the 6-1 beheading by Manchester City as the after.
Of course, the genius of Tom Cleverley has not gone entirely unnoticed. He is already considered best-in-class of a young group (including Jones and the striker Danny Welbeck) to be compared to the Busby Babes and Fergie’s Fledglings, two Man U touchstones.
“Tom is without question so good that he is the best young player at United since Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, and David Beckham came on to the scene,” says former Manchester United Coach Eric Harrison.
After Sunday’s Man City debacle, Dan Coombs wrote: “United beat City 3-2 in the Community Shield because of one man, Tom Cleverley. With Cleverley injured United’s midfield has again looked too static. But to rely on an untested youngster is surely too big a gamble for Ferguson, and too much pressure to put on the prospect after City inflicted his heaviest ever defeat.”
Coombs is still holding out for Sneijder or some such. I disagree because Tom Cleverley is ready for big-time English football. His presence is fundamental to how far Manchester United can go in England and in Europe this 2011-2012 season. He’ll be back soon. Just watch his smoke.