Tom Cleverley was less than inspiring in his time at Manchester United. His play was generally a bit sloppy and he didn't have much of an impact on an underachieving club. That's why so many fans were upset when rumours started circulating in late August that Aston Villa were interested in bringing him in. In the four matches that he has featured in since his arrival, though, Cleverley has shown that he absolutely belongs as a first-choice midfielder in the Premier League, and he's quickly becoming one of my favorite players on this Aston Villa squad.
Put a bit more broadly, I've become absolutely enamored of Villa's midfield right now. Fabian Delph has been playing consistently great football for more than a year now and Ashley Westwood has become a regular enough contributor that his absence from the lineup is a liability for Villa. And in reality, it is probably those two players who are the best in Paul Lambert's midfield, but it's Cleverley who has been catching my eye lately. Maybe it's just because he's the one that most people look over, but I find myself fascinated with how solid he has been.
First, a few numbers in AVFC in Four Numbers style:
Any idea what those are? They're all things that Cleverley is doing exceptionally well, and things that would absolutely justify Randy Lerner spending some of his money to make Cleverley's loan move permanent in January. Let's look at them in order:
- 89 - The percentage of passes completed by Cleverley with Villa this season. Compare that to a team-wide average of 77% and you see why he has already been so important. Villa are never going to be a possession-oriented team as they are currently built, and that means that every possession is especially valuable. Too often we've seen play in the midfield ruined by an errant pass to the other team. Cleverley hasn't been doing that. And in this aspect of play, he's been the best regular on the club. Ashley Westwood is at 85% and Fabian Delph is at 83%. Only Jack Grealish, in limited time, has been better, completing 93% of his passes.
Maybe I should have closed with this number, but it's exactly why I love Cleverley so much. He's not a flashy player in the slightest, but neither is he a player who is prone to making stupid mistakes. Not everyone on the squad should be a world-beater, and consistently good performances are highly valuable on a squad like Villa.
- 55 - The percentage of duels won by Cleverley. He's 2-for-4 in the air (compare that to a team-wide average of 36%) and 12-for-21 in tackling. Cleverley is at his best when he is given the chance to roam forward as an attacking midfielder, but he's shown this season that he can defend his turf fairly well. In this category, he actually lags behind Delph (63%) but is again being consistently solid.
- 6 - The number of chances created by Cleverley. That's not a ton, but it represents 1/6 of the team total in only 4/7 of the club's matches. Here he trails Ashley Westwood's 9 chances, but both players are doing more to give Villa a chance to score than anyone else on the pitch. It's worth noting that both players are doing so largely through fantastic set pieces. We've put up with years of corners and free kicks that were essentially give-aways to the opposition, but now Paul Lambert has two legitimate weapons for these chances. Cleverley's passing, crossing, and set piece ability have put him in position help a team that desperately needs some creativity.
- 0 - Total defensive errors committed by Cleverley. Again, this drives right to the heart of why I have been loving him so much thus far: he doesn't make many mistakes. Think of some of Villa's more encouraging players of the past few years: Nathan Baker, Leandro Bacuna, Ryan Bertrand, Charles N'Zogbia, etc. They all had (or continue to have) moments of real brilliance that encourage us to love them. But they all also had some of the worst mistakes we've seen in claret and blue kits. It's hard to get totally behind a player if you know that they're equally likely to deflate the team as they are to help it. Cleverley isn't prone to these mistakes.
He's not the greatest player that Aston Villa have by any stretch of the imagination (by my count, Brad Guzan, Delph, Westwood, Ron Vlaar, and Christian Benteke are all clearly better than Cleverley), but he has been one of the most regularly strong performers on a team that is desperate for stability. What's really interesting is that if you were to put him back on Manchester United, I think you'd find many of the complaints about him that we heard before he moved to Villa. But here, he fits in perfectly. "Premier League quality" doesn't really mean anything without the right system around a player. Villa are built in such a way that they can get the most out of Cleverley, and they absolutely should pay what it takes to bring him here on a permanent basis.