Cleverley reborn under Sherwood at Villa – and now facing big summer of options
In March 2013, an online petition that called for the culling of an “inept” Tom Cleverley from Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad received nearly 20,000 signatures. Hodgson criticised the disgruntled England fan in question, and all of those who'd added their name in support, declaring: “It doesn't impress me... he deserves to be in this 30-man group. He's done an awful lot of good.”
Whether that was true or not was up for debate but David Moyes, then Cleverley’s club manager at Manchester United, also slammed the stunt. “Tom Cleverley is a fantastic young player who's developing all the time,” said the Scot. “He is a great trainer [who] always gives his best and that's why he will succeed.”
Moyes may not have got much right at Old Trafford, but now that statement is being proved correct on a weekly basis. Cleverley, approaching the end of a season-long loan at Aston Villa, has been in terrific form in recent weeks as Tim Sherwood’s side have pulled clear of relegation trouble and reached a first FA Cup final since 2000. Fourteen months on from that infamous appeal, Cleverley is proving to be anything but inept.
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Villa’s revival under Sherwood has been hugely impressive. When the former Tottenham Hotspur boss replaced Paul Lambert in the dugout in mid-February, the West Midlanders were on a dismal 10-game winless run featuring an unwelcome collection of draws and defeats, and only two goals scored.
After Lambert had employed a reactive, counter-attacking approach in his first two seasons at the club, the Scot reverted to a more possession-based game this season. The results, however, were blunt, plodding and sterile football: though Villa were able to keep the ball for long spells, they had very little cutting edge and Cleverley, likely brought in to aid the switch to a more proactive style, made little discernible impact.
Sherwood has not only improved results – after back-to-back defeats to Stoke and Newcastle in his first two games, Villa have won five of the following nine – but also changed the type of football on display. Villa are now more dynamic and get the ball forward quicker, while the inclusion of Jack Grealish in the starting XI and return of Christian Benteke from injury has added guile and goals respectively.
Cleverley, though, has been an equally important part of Villa’s resurgence. Primarily deployed on the right of a midfield three – with Fabian Delph on the left and Ashley Westwood or Carlos Sanchez sitting slightly deeper as the holding midfielder – Cleverley has provided a fine mix of creativity and energy in the Villans’ engine room, proving himself capable of setting the tempo and driving forward with his thrust and stamina.
Although he has yet to record an assist, Cleverley has laid on plenty of chances for team-mates. The 25-year-old has created 26 chances in 29 starts this season, including five in the wins over Everton and Sunderland.
The Manchester United loanee has also started to add goals to his game, something that was lacking at Old Trafford. Indeed, Cleverley has already matched his return of three Premier League strikes for the Red Devils at Aston Villa, with two of them a result of quick bursts forward from midfield.
Cleverley has attempted nine shots in as many games under Sherwood compared to seven in 20 when Lambert was at the helm, demonstrating the licence he's been given to break forward and get into scoring positions. Following the defeat of West Ham, the midfielder explained the extra freedom afford to him.
“The manager’s taken the shackles off a bit,” he said. “He doesn’t mind his midfielders flooding the box as long as someone else is holding the middle of the pitch. That’s brilliant for me and Fabian [Delph], we’re scoring goals and feel like we can gamble a bit more.”
One of the major criticisms from Cleverley's United days was his propensity to take the safe option on the ball. This issue was exacerbated under Lambert, who encouraged the entire team to prioritise holding possession over playing more incisive but riskier balls.
Cleverley has improved in this regard of late. Against West Ham, 58% of his attempted passes were forward, while in the 1-0 away win over Tottenham that went up to 61%. The midfielder can hold onto the ball when necessary, but he isn't afraid to instigate attacking moves by playing progressive passes.
This is likely a by-product of his newfound confidence. Heavily criticised for his performances during United’s woeful 2013/14 campaign, Cleverley admitted to feeling the pressure and was glad to be given the chance to escape “some of the negativity” by joining Villa at the start of the season. His displays over the last three months or so are testament to his enhanced morale and self-esteem.
Cleverley’s future remains uncertain. Sherwood joked at the weekend that the midfielder wouldn't play in the FA Cup final unless he signed a permanent deal at Villa Park, but there has been rumoured interest from elsewhere, including Bundesliga outfit Wolfsburg, who are able to offer Champions League football.
Certainly, it's difficult to envisage much of a future for the 25-year-old back at Old Trafford – particularly as his contract expires this summer – but he won't be short of suitors in the coming months.
Everton and Arsenal are two sides closer to home that are thought to be tracking the midfielder and, away from the quips and witticisms, Sherwood must be concerned about losing one of his star players' services.
For the time being, Cleverley will presumably be focusing on the remainder of the season, perhaps even with half an eye on earning his first international caps since November 2013 when England face the Republic of Ireland and a Euro 2016 qualifier against Slovenia next month.
If he can keep up his excellent form until the end of May, someone may even begin a petition imploring Hodgson to bring Cleverley back into the Three Lions' setup.