This post was inspired by a Liverpool fan on Twitter, who tweeted something along the lines of “Henderson 1,347 mins, 5 goals, 4 assists. Cleverley 1,396 mins, 2 goals, 1 assist”, the Tweet was received by other Liverpool fans as the proof they needed that Henderson should be in the England squad ahead of the United midfielder. It struck me as a little simplistic to compare these two players using two stats you would ordinarily reserve for a forward or an attacking midfielder. Neither Cleverley nor Henderson fall into this bracket. So, I wanted to look a bit further.
Tom Cleverley is a 23 year old midfielder who broke into the Manchester United’s first team squad at the start of the 2011/2012 season, making his debut in the Community Shield vs Manchester City. He has been with the club since the age of 12. Cleverley had previously enjoyed successful spells at Leicester City, Watford and Wigan Athletic on loan.He has played 31 times for United, scoring 2 goals. He has also played 9 times for the England team.
In 2011, Sir Alex Ferguson said “He is probably the best midfield player in Britain, potentially” and Roy Hodgson later made comparisons with Cesc Fabregas, high praise indeed.
Jordan Henderson is a 22 year old midfielder, he joined Liverpool from Sunderland in June 2011 for a fee in the region of £18 million. Henderson has played 65 times for Liverpool and has scored 7 goals for the club, he also has 5 full England caps to date.
Tom Cleverley has been Alex Ferguson’s central midfielder of choice to partner Carrick this season for the big games, although he hasn’t enjoyed significant playing time across the entire season. He has started key league games against Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham and Arsenal. He also started the crucial 2nd Leg tie versus Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16.
Jordan Henderson has been in and out of the Liverpool team too, but he has enjoyed a more consistent run in the side as a result of Joe Allen’s injury earlier in the year. Often though, Henderson find himself in an unfamiliar wide midfield role to allow Brendan Rodgers to accommodate his other central midfield stars.
In the Premier League this year, both players have had approximately 1,400 minutes of playing time, as the tweet correctly pointed out. This is the equivalent of 15-16 full games of football, which only equates to 40% of their total potential playing time.
Possession and Passing
Figure 1. Full year passing comparison, Premier League 2012/2013
The season total passing analysis comparison for Cleverley and Henderson gives us little insight into the relative strengths of the two players. They are remarkably similar in all departments. The only thing worthy of mention is the total number of passes, with Henderson managing just 80% of Cleverley’s total, Cleverley also enjoys a higher success rate (88% vs 83%). Cleverley also has a larger percentage of forward passes, underlining his strength of playing high up and providing a directness to United’s play. His runs and short passing game is particularly incisive, he also provides a greater mobility than the current alternatives in the United squad.
Given the similarity in the performance across the season as a whole, I thought I would try a different approach to the comparison and consider individual matches, rather than averages or totals over the season. Finding the fairest way to make a comparison is not easy though, Henderson and Cleverley only actually played against each other for 11 minutes during the 2012/2013 Premier League season (Henderson coming on as a late substitute at Old Trafford). So the best way to find a comparison is probably to take the same opponent at the same ground and compare the stats for those games. The only opponent during the season which saw both players play a full part (Cleverley actually 86 mins, but close enough for what we need here) was Manchester City at The Etihad.
Liverpool were the visitors on 3rd February 2013 and held City to 2-2 draw. Manchester United travelled to their neighbours on 9th December 2012 and pinched a 3-2 victory. This game would also have been 2-2, but for a very late Van Persie winner. So, these games were reasonably close in score line and just two months apart. Neither Liverpool or United had any significant absences (although Man City had a couple for the United game) and so this feels like a reasonable basis for a comparison of the two players.
There are a couple of points to note about these two fixtures and the roles Cleverley and Henderson were allocated for these matches. Firstly, Manchester City adopted an almost identical 4-4-2 formation in both matches, with Aguero playing in behind a main striker. So presenting a similar propostion for the opposition midfelder. If anything the team that played United could be argued to be stronger, with Kompany replacing Lescott, Yaya Toure replacing Garcia, Balotelli replacing Dzeko and Nasri replacing Milner (Figure 2 and 3). Also worthy of note are the positions played by Henderson and Cleverley, Henderson played on the left-side of the pitch and had the dual role of providing the forward thrust down that flank, but also of containing the highly energetic James Milner down the City right. Cleverley on the other hand, had the more central role alongside Carrick and was charged with pushing the tempo of United’s play upfield when United gained position and also looking after the dangerous Yaya Toure in the opposite direction.
Figure 2. Man City V Liverpool – Line-Ups and Formation
Figure 3. Man City vs Man United – Line-Ups and Formation
Figure 4. Henderson Performance Dashboard v ManCity
Figure 5. Cleverley Performance Dashboard vs Man City
Figure 6. Key (for Dashboard graphics)
Against City Henderson made 42 out of an attempted 49 passed (86% success) and Cleverley 33 out of 39 (85%). Again, the two England Internationals are incredibly similar.
Henderson played on the left side of midfield for this game, as can be seen on the graphic (Figure 4) he spent most of his time on this side of the pitch. While his total pass count was higher, he exchanged almost half of his total passes (18) in the match were with defender Jose Enrique, also receiving 15 back in return. None of these passes were in the attacking third and threatening the City defence.
Cleverly on the other hand completed passes with central players fairly equally – Carrick (6), Van Persie (6), Young (5) and Rooney (8), rather than with a single player. These were more centrally focussed and regularly penetrated the final third. Maybe you would expect this given the difference roles the players had in each game. On the face of it though, Cleverley appeared to join up play more effectively across the wider team and transition into the final third more often (in the comparisons against City).
Figure 7. Henderson completed passes to Jose Enrique vs Man City, all down the left wing. Some good interchange, but these passes represented almost half of Henderson’s passes during the game and didn’t represent a direct threat to the City goal.
Figure 8. Cleverley completed passes to Van Persie vs Man City at The Etihad. We see more central positioning, 5 passes into the final third and two passes into the City penalty area. Analysis for Rooney shows a similar story.
Creativity and Attack
The Manchester City games don’t tell us much more than we already now with regards to goal-scoring, we already know both players should be contributing more in this area. In their respective games againct City, Henderson had one long range shot off target and Cleverley had two. I would argue that the two players are very equal when it comes to goal-scoring and assists anyway, despite our opening tweet – we must remember that Henderson got two of those goals and an assist in a single game against a very poor Newcastle team a couple of weeks ago.
Looking at the ‘Passing Zones’ graphic (Figure 9 – which show totals for the 2012/2013 season to date, 8th May 2013), we can see that Tom Cleverley has more attacking zone passes and a higher completion rate. Cleverly has made 332 passes in the final 3rd with an 84% accuracy level, compared to 289 at 72% for Henderson. Cleverley is also more prolific and more accurate than Henderson in the final third.
It would appear from this analysis that Cleverley is the more frequent and the more accurate passer of the two players, he certainly has been during the course of this Premier League season.
Figure 9. Passing Zone Analysis – Full Season to date.
Figure 10. Creatvity Analysis, Full season to date
Jordan Henderson is creating a chance every 45 minutes whilst Tom Cleverley is creating a chance every 82 minutes. That’s a pretty clear difference in favour of Jordan Henderson add to that the fact that he’s also creating more clear-cut chances too.
Figure 11. Goal Attempts.
Both players have spent a similar time on the pitch so the stats above can be compared to give a fair reflection on their performance. As we want to steer-clear of the simplistic goals/assists debate let’s look at the other stats above. Jordan shoots on a more frequent basis, gets shots on target on a more regular basis and has a superior shooting accuracy and chance conversion.
Tom Cleverley has a better clear-cut conversion % but has only had two clear-cut opportunities in comparison to Jordan’s seven which points to the fact that Jordan Henderson has got into goal-scoring positions on a more regular basis. Henderson’s off the ball running has improved immensely since January. Once again Henderson edges Cleverley in this area.
Both players have needed to demonstrate the defensive element of their game this season and this is a vital area for both of them if they are to be genuine long term starters for their respective clubs. Looking at the Passing Zone graphic again we can see that, as with the other areas of the park, Cleverley makes more passes than Henderson and with a (slightly) higher completion rate.
From a defensive perspective though, the stats don’t really give us much more insight in terms of the relative strengths of the players. Cleverley’s tackle success rate season to date is 78% compared to 81% for Henderson (although Henderson has actually made fewer tackles). Minutes per tackle is also very close with Tom Cleverley making a tackle every 37 minutes of pitch time and Henderson every 41. Cleverley has dribbled past players in the defensive areas 21 times, compared to 11 for Henderson. However Henderson has made double the number of defensive interceptions (32 vs 16) for his team.
Figure 12. Possession stats.
Cleverley and Henderson rarely lose possession as shown below and they’re very good at winning the ball back for their team too. Cheik Tiote is the best at winning possession back in the Premier League averaging a possession win every 10 minutes however that is his role in the team – the enforcer that breaks up play. Tom Cleverley and Jordan Henderson have more responsibility on the pitch than Tiote. Hence their mins per possession win stats aren’t as impressive as Tiote’s but still very impressive with Jordan Henderson edging it here.
In the defensive areas, I would again rate the two players equally. They are both very disciplined and prepared to get their sleeves rolled up for the defensive cause.
Like Cleverley, Henderson is an extremely dynamic footballer who provides an extra level of pace and purpose in the Liverpool midfield. He has struggled to find a home in the heart of the Liverpool midfield. Where we can argue the Cleverley brings something different to the United team Henderson has very similar players in the Liverpool squad to compete with. He is very similar in his combative approach to the game as Gerrard, without yet reaching the same levels of quality or consistency. There isn’t a player at Liverpool who we have seen yet as the ideal partner for Henderson in the middle and so we have seen him playing out of position in a number of games this season or warming the bench.
Cleverley is certainly workman-like and tenacious. But even the hardcore United supporter would struggle to support an argument for him contributing that much creatively to date, which is fine if he is paving the way for others to fulfill that role. Cleverley does though appear to be the stronger passer than Henderson, both in volume and quality. Cleverley is often the catalyst for United attacks providing an initial quick ball or burst of pace to enable an attack to be built from the middle areas of the field, but he doesn’t often provide that killer pass (as his assist stats will testify). The key to Cleverley’s success, is the player you play with him in the centre of the park. Phil Jones looks like a real a prospect and if he develops into a holding midfield role rather than a central defender, you have to feel that Cleverley will need to add a goal-scoring element to his game if he is to become at regular in the United starting XI.
Currently, I believe (and the stats appear to support me) there is very little between these two players. Cleverley feels to me more like a player who has found his role in the team and understands what he is able to contribute, he works extremely well with the experienced Michael Carrick and the two appear to have good understanding of how to get the best from each other, each covering well for the other as they take their turn to push on. Henderson though is still something of an enigma, he certainly has quality but even with Joe Allen not in contention he hasn’t secured a regular central midfield berth. With Lucas, Gerrard and now Countinho all looking impressive through those central midfield areas at Anfield, he risks being further down the pecking order when Joe Allen returns next season. Longer term, maybe he can fill Gerrard’s boots when he eventually retires but he has some work to do if he is to be a genuine successor to the current Liverpool captain.
Overall, two very similar players in terms of age, ability and their huge potential who out-do each other in different areas. Both players wear their hearts on their sleeves and give their all for their club. Whatever your view, I hope we now all agree that there is more to this than just goals and assists.
Data and Graphics Sources: EPL Index and StatZone.
Published in permission with Strength In Depth