Those locals who cram into Serravalle's Stadio Olimpico on Friday night will presumably be drawn to the glitz and glamour in the visiting ranks. They will whoop at the trademark dynamism offered up by Steven Gerrard or any flashes of brilliance summoned by Wayne Rooney. Yet the man Roy Hodgson deems to be indispensable may be unheralded. Only one player has started all of England's games since Euro 2012: step forward Tom Cleverley.

There is an irony that the one constant in this line-up seems to go constantly unnoticed. The Manchester United midfielder has been employed across the national team's midfield, from a creative No10 to a deep-lying scuttler, through the seven international fixtures this season and it already feels inconceivable that he will not trot out against San Marino and, most likely, again in Podgorica in Tuesday's more awkward contest to collect his eighth and ninth caps. But should an ankle swell or hamstring tighten between now and then, his absence would not provoke panic from those on the outside looking in. Only within the set-up would the alarm bells presumably ring.

Cleverley is already to Hodgson what James Milner was to Fabio Capello, a metronomic presence upon whom he can rely. He is also a player still learning from such rich involvement, one of six cited last month by the national manager who have this team's "future at their feet". Glance at the competition in midfield at United, or a goal return of four to date for his club, or at the chances he spurned against Ukraine in October – an evening that proved quite an education for the 23-year-old after the positive impression he made in his first two outings at this level – and one might wonder quite why he has suddenly become so integral.

Perhaps it is the maturity to his game that attracts the management of club and country. This is a player whom Sir Alex Ferguson deemed had "a great understanding of the game" in the summer of 2011 before he had made any impression at his parent club.

His style is not necessarily eye-catching. It is more busily diligent than anything else, his passing rarely extravagant but generally tidy. Glenn Hoddle pointed out in the autumn that Cleverley "doesn't seem the type who will spray 40- or 50-yard passes but he is an energy player, someone who can pass and move, which is important in international football". That much was illustrated in the first Group H encounter and San Marino's desperate attempt at blanket defence.

At Wembley in October the midfielder mustered 165 touches of the ball, the most of any England player in a single game since Opta started recording such personalised statistics back in 2006. That equated to almost two every minute, fetching and carrying, delivering and distributing, keeping the side ticking over as they sought to stretch limited opponents on what, for half an hour, was an evening that required patience.

The comparisons with Paul Scholes are too simplistic, drawn as they are largely on the basis that the pair are team-mates at the Premier League champions elect. The veteran will be influencing the young pretender's development clearly but, even at this early juncture in his career, there is a versatility to Cleverley's game which benefits the team in which he features. Against Italy in Berne last August, when he made his debut in direct confrontation with a snarling Daniele de Rossi earning a 76th cap, he had acted as England's playmaker, darting into pockets of space to disconcert Federico Balzaretti and Angelo Ogbonna. He was quietly impressive, even filling in without fuss when Frank Lampard, England's captain that night, trundled upfield in support of the attack.

Cleverley boasted only five Premier League starts for United at the time. Earlier that month he had been just as neatly influential when operating alongside Joe Allen in a more defensive brief for Team GB at the Olympics. Certainly he would have relished having so much of the play in front of him as he sought to dictate his side's rhythm through that tournament. Against better opponents the creative hub that must be the No10 can feel onerous at times, as a canny Ukraine side went on to demonstrate in September.

But the United player will have learned much since then. He was not involved in Saturday's victory over Reading but he has featured 28 times for the club this season in all competitions.

Cleverley acknowledged last summer that this had to be his breakthrough campaign, given all the injuries that had blunted his impact last time around. With a first Premier League title-winning medal to follow and a key role in Hodgson's England side established it feels as if he has made his mark.