Cleverley has talked positively about wanting to play a pass and move style on arriving at Aston Villa, and it would seem that his preference is to play as a regista rather than in an advanced midfield role. Paul Lambert and Roberto Martinez were both looking for an attacking midfielder in the final weeks of the transfer window and they fought for Cleverley’s signature on deadline day.
However, Cleverley has not played in an advanced role for some time and doesn’t seem to view himself as a player who provides assists or scores goals. Roy Keane and Paul Lambert would need to modify the player’s game and mind-set if they want to play him in an advanced position for Villa.
Cleverley’s difficulties in the regista role, his preferred position, were exposed when United played against Sunderland this season, where many of his passes went sideways or backwards which enabled Sunderland to command positional play and get players behind the ball.
Cleverley’s passing lacked incisiveness with Mata, Rooney and Van Persie seemingly cut off the rest of the team. When Cleverley did manage to find himself in a more advanced position his composure failed him and he completed only two passes in the final third of the pitch.
[quote_center]Cleverley will need to take more risks and be more incisive with his passing[/quote_center]
Not all of United’s problems could be attributed to Cleverley it must be said. United’s forwards were slow and static, the full-backs lacked penetration and there was a noticeable lack of movement throughout the team.
The stodginess of Manchester United’s midfield is something that Aston Villa generally avoid through having a player like Fabian Delph who can dribble past opponents, break through the lines and attract players out of position. With a better supporting cast in midfield this season, the England international should be even more effective.
The difficulties faced by Villa have generally been the absence of a genuine defensive midfielder which Lambert has solved with the signing of Carlos Sanchez and a failure to provide enough through balls in the final third, a flaw that the signings of Joe Cole and Tom Cleverley may not have noticeably corrected. Cleverley played 10 key passes last season whilst Cole only played 3 (although this is mitigated by number of starts).
The Sanchez Effect
Carlos Sanchez’s work off the ball is frequently a lot better than his work with the ball. The ‘Rock’ temporarily earned the name the ‘Anti-Messi’ during one Copa America game in which he resolutely marked the little Argentine out of the game. Sanchez performance would have been appreciated by Paul Lambert who did a similar job on Zinedine Zidane for Dortmund in the 1997 Champions League final.
Sanchez passing game, however, is unfortunately not at the same level of his hero Claude Makelele and therefore Cleverley could be a good partner to Sanchez in terms of retaining and recycling possession. To use Sanchez and Cleverley together the manager would need to omit either Delph or Westwood from his midfield if he were to play with a midfield three.
The only way Lambert could include all of his central midfielders would be to use a diamond formation, a system that Lambert likes.
Two other players who Lambert had targeted in the transfer window would have been more suited to playing at the tip of the diamond, Sergio Canales and Lewis Holtby, and I am unsure whether Cleverley can play at the tip of a diamond for Villa based on his current form.
It takes a certain player to successfully play in this position as there is so little time to receive the ball, get it under control and make a pass. Even Frank Lampard, who is a similar sort of player to Cleverley in some respects, could not play at the tip of the diamond under Carlo Ancelotti and had to be moved to a deeper position. Stiliyan Petrov also failed to cope in an advanced role in the Premier League and had to drop into a deeper position, so it is a hard job for any player especially one lacking confidence.
The most likely uses of Cleverley appear to be (i) as part of Lambert’s favoured midfield trivote where Lambert used Westwood, Delph and KEA as three interchangeable pressing central midfielders or (ii) as a traditional regista working in tandem with Carlos Sanchez or (iii) as a box to box midfielder on the right of a diamond with Delph on the left.
Most people have assumed that Cleverley will play in an advanced midfield position this season, in which case Cleverley will need to take more risks and be more incisive with his passing.
There is evidence that Cleverley was previously useful as an attacking midfielder and he showed glimpses of promise in his season at Wigan in 2010/11 under Roberto Martinez where he scored 3 goals and made 2 assists, but he needs to hit the ground running as there are other midfielders at the club who are showing real development in their overall game.
Delph is now a full England international and Ashley Westwood has impressed in Villa’s first three league games of the 2014/15 season, not to mention the emergence of Jack Grealish and the imminent return of Joe Cole to full fitness.
The most positive aspect of Lambert’s midfield selection conundrum therefore is that the manager does have options to change things, Delph, Westwood and Cleverley are entering their peak years and there is now a genuine competition for places.