Nobody, supposedly, rates Tom Cleverley. The armchair fans, surfacing only to analyse with friends down the pub on a Saturday night, do not rate Tom Cleverley. The thousands in the stands, groaning from the moment he is read out from the team sheet, do not rate Tom Cleverley. Pundits, ex-players and even the postman do not rate Tom Cleverley.
And yet, despite that, the 25-year-old is wanted by a whole host of clubs. Southampton and West Ham want him, as do current club Aston Villa. Champions League mainstays Arsenal are reportedly showing an interest, too.
Someone, then, does rate Cleverley. Sam Allardyce, a wily old-school manager, rates him. Ronald Koeman, one of the Premier League’s most exciting managers this season, rates him. Arsene Wenger, a legend of the game, rates him.
So, too, does Everton boss Roberto Martinez. His interest in the midfielder, who he worked with in the 2010-11 season at Wigan Athletic, is well documented. He is a big fan of Cleverley and gave the Basingstoke man a platform to perform in the top-flight. After two good seasons with Leicester and Watford, the Catalan took the chance on him in the Premier League.
His faith was repaid with Cleverley being one of Wigan’s star performers, helping them finish three points clear of safety.
Tom Cleverley in action for Wigan
But still he isn’t rated, and the suggestion he could be at Goodison Park next season has been met with dismay by a number of Evertonians – even on a free transfer, which is what Cleverley would be with his Manchester United contract expiring this summer.
The discontent over the mooted signing is understandable. He’s become the butt of many jokes, the perfect scapegoat in both United and England sides, even though the problems were far more deep-rooted than one player. A lot of the that sort of stick can stick, seeping into the subconscious of those who watch him.
To portray football fans as brainwashed would be unfair and to suggest Cleverley is a player who naturally excites would be, at best, a stretch. He is solid, steady, dependable; a cog in the machine rather than one to make sparks fly. There have been plenty of players like that in the past, ones whose ability is not wholly apparent apart from the man who selects him. Michael Carrick, one of the main factors for Cleverley seeking another club, is the perfect example of that.
Hope, then, for Cleverley – and hope for Martinez if he manages to convince the player to join him in the summer.
It was at Wigan where he’s performed best. He scored three goals in 25 games – a top-flight high, for him – and made two assists, equalling his total for United in 2012-13. He also averaged one key pass a game, his best effort in the Premier League so far. He also averaged more shots per game (1.6) and more dribbles (0.6).
Cleverley could use Michael Carrick as an example
That could be attributed to his change in role. As his career has developed – or, in the eyes of many, regressed – he has moved further away from goal. He has been utilised most as a deep-lying playmaker rather than making an impact further up the field. That’s reflected by his time at Wigan, averaging just 25 passes a game – 20 fewer than he has this season – and with an accuracy of just 81.6%, highlighting how he would play riskier passes.
Maybe that is why he caught the eye so much at Wigan, playing in a far more impactful role. Any success would possibly depend on being used in that sort of role once again, as the most forward of the three midfielders behind Romelu Lukaku.
Even in the deeper role this season, he’s matched up well enough with Everton’s current midfielders. His 86% pass success is level with both Gareth Barry and James McCarthy, and just behind Muhamed Besic. He’s also created 23 chances in 26 appearances, the same as Barry (11) and McCarthy (12) combined, while Bosnian Besic has managed just eight. In terms of getting his shots on target, he’s also been better than all three this season.
On the back foot, he has won more tackles than Besic and McCarthy – with more success, too – and is just one behind Barry’s total of 56 this season.
Cleverley’s stats compare favourably to the likes of James McCarthy (right) and Muhamed Besic (left)
There are mitigating circumstances, of course. Besic is still adapting to the Premier League; McCarthy’s game is not one to be limited on numbers alone, such is his talent. Barry, meanwhile, is having a poor season for a club who have also had a year to forget.
That is maybe why any notion of Cleverley signing is rejected by Toffees fans. He’s not as good as McCarthy, nor as energetic as Besic. He is more of the same to what Goodison already watches, but with even less excitement. Everton need goals, tricks, flicks, pace. Cleverley doesn’t possess any of those in abundance.
But he’s still an experienced Premier League midfielder, a former international and a player with the scope to improve in the right role and system.
If Martinez can find that, or simply make him rated once more, he would be an astute acquisition on a Bosman, a reliable squad player who would not represent much of a gamble. The key for the Blues is to ensure he’s not the biggest signing – or, indeed, the best – this summer.