I'm not a fan of Tom Cleverley. I've always seen him as overrated, held up by Manchester United as their answer to Jack Wilshere in terms of homegrown midfield talent, used to fill the gaping hole in midfield for the side and, despite struggling to produce much of anything in the way of results, almost always getting picked by David Moyes. That said, I feel sorry for the young man given his posterboy status for the failure of Moyes' reign and the overrating of English talent. This piece is not a defence - it's a declaration that Tom Cleverley might just be useful for England in Brazil.
A short while ago, Cleverley did an interview with the Daily Mirror where he claimed that his strengths lied in the defensive distribution of the ball - shuttling, shielding and covering for other midfielders. Having watched United struggle this season, I am inclined to agree with him. Tasked to provide creativity in a 4-4-2 alongside Michael Carrick, Cleverley has failed spectacularly, producing nothing of real merit; rather, the two midfielders have almost cancelled each other out. Cleverley is not the only victim of this, as Marouane Fellaini has also struggled after his move from Everton, but these troubles point more to the failures of the manager rather than the players themselves. Where it becomes concerning for England fans is tactically - Roy Hodgson favours a similar 4-4-2 formation, so how is Cleverley useful?
Upon reading the Cleverley interview, an immediate comparison popped into my head - that of Chelsea's much-maligned John Obi Mikel, converted from an attacking midfielder to a similar defensive playmaker by Jose Mourinho during his first reign at the club. The Nigerian excelled at this limited role, tasked with producing very little and allowing the more ambitious midfielders like Frank Lampard to bomb forward. Under several different managers, it's become quite clear that Mikel is best when used in a "double-pivot" against teams with greater attacking flair (a 4-2-3-1, such as in Munich in 2012) or in a three man midfield sitting in front of the centrebacks (a "Mourinho special", a 4-3-3). This allows faster box-to-box types to cover offensively, allowing the defensive midfielder to act as a midfield metronome, spraying passes from the base of the attack.
Now, Cleverley is not a carbon copy of Mikel, but the similarities in style are hard to ignore and should affect England's tactical set up. Pairing Cleverley with, say, Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson would offer England a balance of attack and defence that could serve the country well in Brazil. With Michael Carrick being the only other player experienced at sitting deep (despite the best efforts of Brenden Rogers and Mourinho to convert Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard to Pirlo-type registas), Cleverley could be a defensive option coming off the bench or against tricky teams like Uruguay. For this to happen, Hodgson needs to step away from the basic 4-4-2 and experiment with a more dynamic midfield.
Are there better English midfielders at the moment who could do this job? Absolutely - Tom Huddlestone has been magnificent in a similar role for Hull, but Cleverley has age on his side. Should he grow into this role and succeed, England will be well placed to go far in Brazil and in the future. All it takes is a little push.