Manchester United’s woes have been prolonged and almost constant this season, but the intensity hasn’t reached the peak of potent pain received on October 23 2011. That day, United crumbled against the dynamism of their rising bitter rivals City, succumbing to a 6-1 defeat on their own patch.
As ever, livid supporters were eager for heads to roll – or at least one head in particular. United defender Jonny Evans had endured a torrid day at the heart of the defence and it came to a premature end when, as the last defender early in the second half, he yanked Mario Balotelli to the turf. A dismissal inevitably followed and Evans’ role as the scapegoat was set in stone.
It’s a label that Evans struggled to shake off in the months subsequent to that humiliation. Sir Alex Ferguson opted to stick with the Northern Irish international, despite objection from a sizeable proportion of supporters, who felt Evans wasn’t good enough to be counted among the Premier League’s elite.
And, at that time, he probably wasn’t. This was a fan base which was used to seeing Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand industriously patrol and control the defensive third at Old Trafford for years, with lapses in concentration few and far between. Evans was seen as a future John O’Shea or Wes Brown, destined to passively play out the mid-to-late years of his unfulfilled career at Sunderland.
That brings us to Tom Cleverley. The midfielder has borne the brunt of United’s early anguish under David Moyes, with it not being entirely clear what the England international brings to the party.
Cleverley admits that he’s been “stung” by the criticism, but insists that his talents, by their very nature, go unnoticed.
Cleverley said: “I watch Spanish football a lot. If they pass the ball sideways but keep possession, the fans clap them…sometimes I have got to not listen and play my game because I feel I’m doing the best thing for the team.”
Cleverley clearly feels that he’s been performing his duties appropriately, and he certainly appears to have the backing of his manager. But to make the comparison to La Liga is condescending to English supporters, who are increasingly conscious of the need to retain possession.
The modern midfielder must have several strings to their bow; they must be a combination of ball-winner, relentless chaser, defence-splitting passer, composed finisher and tempo-controller. The question, then, must be: is ball retention alone enough to warrant a place at the core of one of the world’s biggest clubs? The answer is surely no.
But having made his United debut in 2009, Cleverley is three years behind Evans in his development. If he is allowed more time to follow that career trajectory and add to his game at Old Trafford, which appears to be the case, he could yet shrug off his scapegoat status and become one of the first names on the team sheet.
At Manchester United, not Sunderland.
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