Why all the criticism of Tom Cleverley has been over the top

The media, much like fans, are fickle. After England had seen off what could only really be described as a mediocre pub team in Moldova last Friday, the world and his wife was ready to anoint Tom Cleverley as the future of England’s midfield. Roy Hodgson compared him with Cesc Fabregas and fans phoned in to hail the Manchester United man as the perfect proponent of the progressive, probing, possession based football that England need to succeed at the top level of international football.

Fast forward to Tuesday night and after the disappointing draw with Ukraine, suddenly Cleverley was over-rated, not good enough and devoid of an end product. Admittedly, Cleverley did not have his best night. His misses, which were bad and a sign of a player lacking in confidence in front of goal, took the headlines but his general play was poor. He failed to find space and his passing was often off-key as he was marshalled superbly by the Ukraine captain Anatoliy Tymoshchuk. Indeed, it would be fair to say that England’s performance only went up a level after Cleverley departed the pitch to be replaced by club-mate Danny Welbeck, who would then rattle the post before drawing the penalty that secured England’s equaliser.

However, the way Cleverley would be, to use a footballing expression, taken to the cleaners by the press in their reaction to the draw was extremely disproportionate. The BBC described him as “a theory rather than a reality” as an international player, while the Guardian remarked that Cleverley had been given “a reality check” at international level.

What utter rubbish. Yes, Cleverley had had a bad night but let’s not beat around the bush here – had the 23 year old stuck away at least two of his three major chances as he should have done then England would most likely have come away with a win and Cleverley would continue to be proclaimed England’s new hero. The comparison with Fabregas was clearly ill-judged, particularly as the two players appear to be different types of midfielders, with the Spaniard preferring to finish off moves while Cleverley continually wants to orchestrate. However, one thing Cleverley does share with Fabregas is his unwillingness to hide even if the match appears to be going against him. Against Ukraine, this is precisely what Cleverley did. Did he go missing despite the fact that passes were going astray? No. He continued to demand the ball and probe, while he was present in the box for the chances that he would eventually miss. Perhaps the best lesson Cleverley can learn from Fabregas is the Barcelona man’s (usual) coolness in front of goal. At Arsenal, Fabregas’ occasional below-par performances would be masked by some match-winning goals.

However, let us not forget that although Cleverley is reasonably old in footballing terms at 23, he is coming off the back of an injury plagued last season and yet is still a firm fixture in both Manchester United’s and England’s team. Why? Because he possesses the vision, creativity and above all technical excellence to retain the ball under pressure that is so crucial in modern-day football. What would we prefer? England have had years of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard: fantastic, all-action players who are able to find the net with regularity for the national side and see off sides such as Ukraine. But it’s not about the Ukraines, it’s about the future and competing with the Spains, the Italys and the Germanys. Players like Cleverley are key to success in those matches and rather than batter them after a poor performance, they should be protected, nurtured and encouraged.

Adam Mazrani

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