Cleverley struggles to shine
Going Dutch is becoming a habit for Tom Cleverley. The oft-injured midfielder made his comeback after three-and-a-half months on the sidelines against Ajax last week. He appeared at Old Trafford for the first time since August's 8-2 thrashing of Arsenal as Manchester United lost to the Eredivisie champions but nonetheless eliminated them from the Europa League in the return leg. His England debut could come against Netherlands on Wednesday.
Yet even in an era of hype, it is rare that so much is expected of one who appears so infrequently. Cleverley's ninth United game could have been Ryan Giggs' 900th - instead the veteran was an unused substitute - which rather puts his brief career into perspective.
But few things generate excitement quite like a sense of mystery and Cleverley is still something of an unknown quantity. His reputation was elevated in his extended absence, especially until Paul Scholes returned from retirement to add class to the midfield. Now begins the harder task: living up to predictions of pre-eminence.
It will not be easy. This was a display to dampen expectations, Cleverley giving a glimpse of his strengths but highlighting his shortcomings. Had Kenneth Vermeer not parried a beautifully clean strike from 25 yards, he would have opened his United account. He has a natural positivity and gravitates to the position between the lines. It is a very un-English thing to do.
In doing so, however, he leaves a gap. But while United's early-season goal glut was attributed to Cleverley's catalytic impact, the large number of chances opponents enjoyed was another consequence. Ajax, too, were granted the freedom of Old Trafford.
"They play a system that is suitable for our play," said manager Frank de Boer diplomatically. As his central midfielder went missing, Sir Alex Ferguson argued injury created the problem. "Tom found it very difficult to get to the pace of the game because he had been out for so long," he said.
Cleverley's presence places too great an onus on his partner to offer industry and reliability and, though Park Ji-sung's helped provide Javier Hernandez's goal, it may have been the only time he won the ball all night. The South Korean is miscast as the holding player. Andre Villas-Boas played without natural defensive midfielders on Tuesday and so did Ferguson 48 hours later. Both suffered from strange selections.
The result was that Ajax took control of the midfield, Cleverley got the hook and Phil Jones and Scholes were paired to shore up the side in the final half-hour. They offered the solidity Cleverley and Park lacked, the middle-aged metronome providing a contrast with the young pretender, who flits in and out of a game. The point, perhaps, is that Cleverley is not yet a central midfielder; not when in a 4-4-2 system with out-and-out wingers, anyway. He is better suited to playing in a trio or, less realistically given it would require a formation seen rather more often in Germany and Italy than England, at the tip of a midfield diamond.
So it was an inaccurate reflection of the night that Ajax clinched victory, albeit a Pyrrhic one, after Scholes' introduction. With three minutes remaining, Toby Alderweireld headed in Aras Ozbiliz's free kick. In doing so, they made their hosts anxious - Jonny Evans was booked for time-wasting, something few anticipated they would need to do when Hernandez struck in the sixth minute - and provided unwanted echoes of United's exits from the Carling Cup and Champions League.
Each was caused by complacency, from manager and team alike. "I've got to accept responsibility myself; playing so many young players in the back four was a big ask," Ferguson added. "It was nervy." It also appeared unnecessary. United underestimated Ajax, who were much improved after the first leg. With greater belief, the Dutch champions might have supplied the shock of the round. Instead it is United who advance to face Athletic Bilbao.
Their progress seemed smooth when Park gathered the ball in the centre circle and Dimitar Berbatov supplied Hernandez, who skipped past Alderweireld and defeated Vermeer. At that stage, Ajax were the side who appeared too open as United's second-string strikeforce threatened to combine to clinical effect again. Instead, the visitors' goal was only seriously threatened again when Nani clipped the bar with an unstoppable strike.
By then Ajax had equalised, Ozbiliz drilling in from the edge of the box. Their technical talents, men like Miralem Sulejmani, Siem de Jong and Ozbilis, began to feature more. And one who has caught Ferguson's eye looked like the United playmaker of the future. It was not Cleverley, but the composed Christian Eriksen.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Aras Ozbiliz - Scored one and made another in a victory few forecast. It was a terrific night for the young Armenian, who may become the latest Ajax youngster to catch the scouts' eyes.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: It was another night to raise questions about the United squad - are two Da Silvas really better than one? - and many of the fringe players are far more likely to perform when in harness with the regulars. Park's appearances in centre midfield this season have been almost uniformly unsuccessful, which was particularly problematic because of the rookie back four. However, there was a world-class defence at Old Trafford, but it was in the back row of the directors' box where Rio Ferdinand and Edwin van der Sar flanked Nemanja Vidic.
AJAX VERDICT: "It could have been a bigger victory," said De Boer, who pronounced himself "angry" with his side's first-half performance. That, in itself, is a damning verdict on the United display. On this evidence, Ajax should not be sixth in their domestic league.