The 23-year-old was not fazed on his senior debut despite being pitted against the battle-hardened Daniele de Rossi
Tom Cleverley had cut and pasted a newspaper cutting on to his Facebook page before kick-off that summed up his thrill of the debut to come. It depicted one of the anticipated head-to-heads from the friendly with the Azzurri, a duel that pitted the fresh-faced youngster against the grizzled, battle-hardened Daniele de Rossi: a collision between a man with 76 caps against a boy with none. Yet, even 85 seconds into his international career, it was very clear Cleverley feels comfortable in this company.
By then the Manchester United midfielder was already picking himself from the turf with a wave of disgust offered towards the Swiss official, his flash of intuitive skill having hoodwinked Italy's captain for the night. De Rossi had ploughed through him regardless that the ball had long gone, a crunching tackle from behind that, if not necessarily intentional, would at least normally serve as a warning to any young pretender keen to dazzle. It said much about Cleverley's self-confidence that he did not shrink thereafter. This chance, even at 23, has been a long time coming and had to be taken.
Cleverley has already publicly conceded this must be a defining season for him at Old Trafford but, even before the domestic campaign is sparked, he had been presented with an opportunity to become an essential member of England's future. Roy Hodgson was in experimental mood against the Italians, his team's conquerors at Euro 2012, and the novice had been granted a key role in the side's evolution. Gone was the rigid 4-4-1-1 from Ukraine and instead came evidence that the English have players who can thrive in the more fluid and sophisticated surroundings of a 4-2-3-1.
"We do have quality players with good technique," Hodgson had claimed on the eve of the match. His faith in a player who has made only five Premier League starts for Manchester United to revel in that central attacking trio was evidence to back up that conviction. Cleverley has not been employed in the hole for his club. Indeed, with Team GB this month he had busied himself collecting the ball from deep, alongside the impressive Joe Allen, before meandering into more attacking positions. Here he darted into pockets of space, teasing Federico Balzaretti and Angelo Ogbonna when he escaped De Rossi's maniacal stare. The United player buzzed and prompted, fizzing passes to team-mates with the confidence of one who belonged. He appeared to be enjoying himself.
The eagerness was refreshing to behold, though it was also understandable. Had things turned out differently, Cleverley might have imposed the same qualities a year ago only for last summer's surge in form to prove a false dawn. He had dazzled as the then champions recovered a two-goal deficit to eclipse Manchester City in the Community Shield curtain-raiser, would have made his England debut against Holland a few days later only for the game to be postponed due to the London riots, then impressed again in the demolitions of Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal that followed.
Such form hinted at a watershed, yet it was the frustration endured on the sidelines recovering from injury, damage initially sustained in a tackle from Kevin Davies in the rout of Bolton in mid-September, that came to define his campaign. Club appearances were sporadic thereafter, his involvement reduced to cameos in the spring. An insistence earlier this week that "I was 30 seconds from winning my first Premier League winner's medal" was him painting an optimistic picture. Had he not already sported a crew cut, he would have been tearing his hair out anyway.
His, at least, is an old head on relatively young shoulders. On the pitch, he has a maturity that has long been recognised by Sir Alex Ferguson – "He has a great understanding of the game," the United manager had said a year ago" – with his diligent and instinctive tracking back into the space vacated by Frank Lampard when the captain moved upfield an indication of his thought processes. Off the field of play he has recognised there is time aplenty ahead to make his mark, even if he need only have glanced at the club-mate at his back to comprehend that chances must be seized.
Michael Carrick was making his 23rd England appearance over 11 years since his debut in Sven-Goran Eriksson's first game in charge, his return here a recognition of England's principal failing at Euro 2012: an inability to retain possession. His range of passing is more impressive than that of most but he has not demanded inclusion enough in the seasons since. He rarely imposes himself on contests at this level. He could be England's metronome, setting their tempo, if he was more dynamic.
Maybe that role still awaits the 31-year-old, who took the armband from Lampard on his substitution and whose ability to summon flashes of class will surely appeal to Hodgson. Certainly Cleverley's energy and eager quality on the ball will also be on the manager's mind when it comes to selecting his squad for next month's World Cup qualifiers. One sharp rat-a-tat exchange with Ashley Young and Lampard, culminating in the veteran having a shot saved by Salvatore Sirigu, had demonstrated both his awareness and his potential. He pushed up further in support of Jermaine Defoe after the interval and sought out possession even if he, too, must develop that knack of conjuring magic from occasions this scrappy. Yet he has time on his side. A refusal to cower in De Rossi's presence represented a promising start.