Tom Cleverley continues to be a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
This week, after the impressive Sunderland victory, Tim Sherwood took the chance to talk him up, calling him a "hoover" for the amount of ground he covered in the middle of the park, with a 92% pass rate completion at the weekend.
The betting site Ladbrokes subsequently accused Sherwood of "smoke and mirrors" and called Cleverley the "footballing equivalent of a crab", for having the shortest average pass length of the Villa midfielders and his record of 0 goals and 0 assists in the league so far.
It was an oddly specific attack on a single footballer from a betting site but then they were using it as advertising to tempt people into their 4/1 odds on Villa being relegated. (Villa fans looking for reassurance on the relegation front should be happy about that - the bookies don't want people betting on the sides actually likely to go down after all.)
But that doesn't solve the problem of Cleverley. 0 goals and 0 assists is a bit hard to stomach from a player who still seems to prefer a move to Everton in the summer. On the other hand, Villa played a 4-4-2 against a three man Sunderland central midfield on Saturday. Technically that spare man should have meant total Sunderland dominance in the middle of the park. Instead Delph and Cleverley ran the show - could he really do that while also being the "footballing equivalent of a crab"?
Here's a breakdown of some of Cleverley´s stats against Sunderland (all drawn from FourFourTwo.com's MatchCentre) -
0 shots, 0 assists
78 attempted passes, 72 completed (92% accuracy)
Passes forward attempted 34, passes square attempted 13, passes backwards attempted 31
Tackles attempted 4 (3 successful), Interceptions 1
Chances created 3
There's certainly something there for the 'Cleverley is a crab' crowd. Villa's most attacking performance of the season and Cleverley doesn´t get even a shot or an assist, just keeps on rotating that ball. On the other hand, he created three chances (passes leading to a shot on goal), more than any other Villa player with the exception of Bacuna. I would also note the Fabian Delph's forwards/square/backwards pass proportions are very, very similar - as part of an outnumber central duo, there will be times the ball needs to go backwards, if only to recycle it out to the wings.
Perhaps more interesting is his movement. Here´s a heatmap from WhoScored.com showing his touches:
The most striking feature is the drift over to the right flank, where Bacuna and N'Zogbia were doing such damage. In the comments on my analysis of the match, one of our readers Wabbit_Season rightfully noted that Cleverley was doing a lot of the build-up work - most noticeably in a lovely round-the-corner ball to N'Zogbia that was the start of the first goal. Him joining that overload on the wing was a key part of Villa´s attacking strategy. It's not exactly crablike movement.
Cleverley has all the signs of being one of those players whose good work is doomed to go unappreciated. He doesn't score a lot, he doesn't assist a lot and he doesn't play Hollywood long balls. But he makes very few mistakes and if placed behind good attacking players, his build-up play and the pressure that comes from his retention of possession can be vital.
If Cleverley does rejoin Martinez at Everton during the summer, there´ll be few Villa fans who are heartbroken. But he could still have a key role in this relegation battle and his presence should lengthen the odds on Villa going down.