Tom Cleverley: Not Abdi – Yet Sufficiently Similar

Almen Abdi: it is safe to say the vast majority of Watford supporters have fond memories when they hear that name. He is Watford’s most recent direct free-kick scorer (a goal that occurred almost five years ago). The former Switzerland international player’s attacking threat from the midfield made him a fan favorite. 

At times this season, some may think the Hornets would be better off with a player identical to Abdi. Although that is true, the Hornets do indeed have a player who is not completely different – but offers even more too. 

Abdi’s Vicarage Road Success

Now retired following a spell with Sheffield Wednesday, Abdi initially joined Watford, from Udinese, on loan for the 2012/13 campaign. In the Pozzos’ first year of owning the Hornets, Abdi was an instant success. Including the three Promotion Playoff matches, the attacking midfielder scored 12 goals and notched nine assists in 42 appearances.

The Hornets subsequently purchased him on a permanent basis. But, Abdi’s 2013/14 campaign was largely interrupted by injuries, and he only managed to play 16 matches in all competitions. The following season, however, Abdi was back to being one of the Club’s most influential players.

In the 2014/15 promotion campaign, Abdi did not perfectly replicate his 2012/13 goal-contribution output. As impressive as nine goals and two assists from 32 appearances is for a midfielder, that output does not justify the true influence he had in the Club’s promotion season.

Apart from his set-piece brilliance (something no Watford player has replicated since his departure), Abdi was pivotal to so many of the Hornets’ attacking movements. Even with Deeney and Ighalo in the best form of their careers, Abdi’s vision and creativity were essential to Watford’s attacking juggernaut. 

In the Hornets’ first season in the Premier League, Abdi played 32 matches and scored twice. Although his performances were decent (but not overly impressive), Watford sold him to Sheffield Wednesday. The Club brought in Roberto Pereyra to try and fill the attacking-midfield void, but ultimately, Watford have not been able to get a truly like-for-like replacement since. 

However, this season, Watford do have an Abdi-esque player. Well, to an extent – the nearly perfect extent.

Tom Cleverley Providing Necessary Glimpses Of Similarity – And So Much More

When Deeney has been absent, Tom Cleverley has taken the captain’s armband and performed admirably. The central midfielder joined Watford, from Everton, in 2017. His first three seasons at Vicarage Road were largely hindered by injuries. By Project Restart, when he returned from a heel injury, he was firmly behind Will Hughes, Etienne Capoue, and Abdoulaye Doucoure in the pecking order. So, even though Cleverley’s experience and talent were known, he gradually became a slightly forgotten man. This season has revitalized his career. 

In 30 league appearances, the 31-year-old has scored four times and assisted two goals. When playing in Xisco Munoz’s 4-3-3 formation, the former Red Devil is the midfielder highest up the pitch. This was even the case in any of the other countless formations the Hornets have attempted this season.

From the advanced-midfield role, Cleverley sometimes provides the creative spark Abdi became known for. Cleverley’s vision and composure ensure he does not give the ball away during positive attacking movements. He is the Club’s leading central-midfield goal-scorer this season, with twice as many goals as second-placed Hughes. 

Before his recent minor ligament injury, Cleverley thoroughly usurped set-piece duties and started to look more dangerous with his deliveries. He has been the preferred set-piece taker for the majority of the season, but that preference recently became a practical exclusivity. Although the Club’s direct free-kick curse has not yet been lifted, Cleverley started to come a lot closer to scoring from the free-kicks. His corner kicks were more sparsely hitting the first-defender – a previously way-too-frequent occurrence from the Hornets’ corner routines. 

So, at times, Cleverley provides glimpses of what the Club has missed since the Abdi days. But, of course, Cleverley brings other talents to the table too. His defensive acumen is significantly better than Abdi’s, meaning Cleverley’s high-pressing from the attacking midfield is more dangerous than Abdi’s was. The former Premier League winner’s leadership traits have also made significant positive contributions to the Hornets this season. He is reliable no matter where he needs to play in the midfield, defensive or attacking-minded.

Philip Zinckernagel also has similar traits to Abdi. His delicate, genius, slipped-in assist to Andre Gray against Wycombe showed the similar creative aspects are there. And, with Cleverley sidelined for the next few matches, Zinckernagel will continue to have the chance to showcase his talents – and from there, further similarities may be able to be drawn. 

Overall, Abdi is a player hard to replicate. But, when the Hornets have needed a carbon copy, Cleverley has come close enough. And, of course, Cleverley offers many other different, necessary talents to the Club as well.

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