Cleverley gives hope
After an impressive 5-0 win for England in Moldova, Adam Bate hails the display of Tom Cleverley and wonders whether his rise to prominence could be a step in the right direction for English football.
By Adam Bate - Follow me @GhostGoal
Last Updated: 08/09/12 10:53pm
It was understandable that Frank Lampard received the plaudits in Chisinau. When the 34-year-old midfielder ghosted in at the far post to double England's lead and net his second of the game, he effectively secured three points for the Three Lions. That took the Chelsea man's tally to 25 goals in 92 games for his country - a record that makes Steven Gerrard's total of 19 goals from 97 international appearances appear ordinary when it is anything but. For all the disappointments, both men will be missed when their time finally passes. But England now have a very different type of midfielder in the ranks. And one that could provide a far brighter future.
Tom Cleverley's goalscoring record is not impressive. The Manchester United man is yet to score for either his club or his country in 20 matches. In part that is due to his responsible attitude even in an advanced role. "We all know where each other is in midfield, and we can all rotate it with the runs forward," he explained. "So if Steve or Frank goes forward, one of us will hang back." But Cleverley offers something else that his more experienced team-mates do not. His is a neat and tidy passing game that doesn't lend itself to headline stealing. It might, however, be the way forward for English football.
Switching from one extreme to another seems to be the way of things for England. After the hot-headed Kevin Keegan came the cool Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson. His replacement Steve McClaren sated the desire for an English coach before Fabio Capello again embodied the ambition for a man with an international reputation. Now England are back with an Englishman in Roy Hodgson. Similarly, after years of powerhouses dominating England's midfield, there is an appetite for something more subtle. Of course, it won't be long before the loss of 'Lamps' and 'Stevie G' is lamented. But the failings are familiar - and a new way is needed.
The long balls and the lack of possession have been a perennial problem and the early signs of Hodgson's reign were no different. Although technically unbeaten in eight games in charge, his side were outpassed in every match at Euro 2012 and looked a long way from potential winners. The lack of progress was encapsulated in two hours against Italy in Kiev in which England showcased all of their technical deficiencies alongside their admirable but ultimately futile grit and determination. A switch to 4-5-1 and a win over Moldova won't erase those memories but it can provide encouraging signs nonetheless.
Change of approach
Cleverley was pressed into action as a classic No 10 operating behind the striker on Friday evening. The presence of the diminutive 23-year-old coupled with Jermain Defoe as the lone striker saw England eschew the long-ball option in favour of a more considered build up. And it was a build-up that Cleverley was happy to get involved in. As former England striker Alan Smith had noted after Cleverley's debut against Italy: "The promising playmaker showed the advantages of picking a midfielder rather than a striker for a job that requires a defensive understanding when the opposition have possession."
Of course, Hodgson has made it clear he is sceptical of possession for possession's sake - the England boss wants players affecting the game. For that reason he can be expected to cling on to Lampard and Gerrard for as long as is viable. The 64-year-old explains: "It's nice to see these young players taking their chances and showing they merit a place in the squad. But the old guard is making certain they don't get too much of a look-in." For now at least. But Hodgson is getting a close-up look at another type of midfielder.
Traditionally, England have favoured more than their fair share of limited battlers in the centre of the park. Nicky Butt earned rave reviews for his solid displays for his country at the 2002 World Cup but he is as aware as anyone that Cleverley could represent a significant upgrade. "He can go anywhere really," said Butt. "He's got that much ability. Cleverley is a much better technical footballer than I ever was. It just goes to show how it's moving on with these players."
With Shinji Kagawa playing in an advanced midfield role for Manchester United, 'moving on' for England could mean using Cleverley in a deeper role for his country as well. That leads to the intriguing prospect of him being paired alongside Jack Wilshere when the Arsenal man finally returns from his lengthy injury lay-off. With the intelligent passing of Michael Carrick also available once again after his return to the international fold, it's tempting to conclude that Hodgson has - with a couple of tweaks of formation and personnel - developed a path to take England forward in the long-term.