Rants and musings from the magazine team
It’s just over 16 months since Gareth Bale’s Champions League hat-trick in the San Siro propelled him head-first into the continental consciousness.
In a way, he has since been burdened by the perhaps inflated praise heaped on him in the days following that performance. The hyperbole spouted by others is used as a stick to beat him with. One national newspaper continually sarcastically refers to him as ‘the World’s Greatest’ on Twitter, while suggestions he shares some of the same attributes as Cristiano Ronaldo are routinely mocked, with some saying he possesses little more than sheer pace.
Comparisons to the Real Madrid star – widely regarded as the second best player in the world – may seem fanciful, but there can be no doubting Bale has a skillset wide enough to make him one of the very best, should he continue to develop.
Indeed, statistics compiled at the start of this month showed that Bale had scored more goals, provided more assists, attempted more passes and made more tackles in his first 99 Premier League matches than the Portuguese had done in his.
The vast majority of those first 99 matches saw Bale play on the left, be it as an overlapping full-back or an out-and-out winger. And that, by a long chalk, is where Bale has been at his best.
Inter right-back Douglas Maicon probably still spends his evenings sat alone in the dark rocking back and forth mumbling ‘taxi’, such was the relentless harassment he received from Bale against the Londoners in the autumn of 2010.
In the second meeting in particular, Bale was unstoppable. Despite the not unsubstantial warning of a hat-trick at the San Siro, Inter seemed unable to stop the Welshman rampaging down their right flank. His pace, power, control and vision out wide created two goals and inspired Spurs to a famous win which went a long way to seeing the Londoners finish top of Group A.
But Bale recently revealed he was concerned at being frozen out of matches as a result of being doubled-marked if he continued to hug the touch-line, and instead wanted the freedom to drift inside.
"Being stuck outside is not good all the time," he explained. "You need to mix your game up and give the opposition things to think about. If I'm not getting the ball, I'm not helping the team. I want to be involved, get as much of the ball as I can, so that's why I've had to go inside to be a positive influence on the game."
The early signs were good. Following Tottenham’s impressive 2-0 victory at Norwich in December – in which Bale and Rafael van der Vaart both played in more central ‘free roles’ behind Emmanuel Adebayor – there was much talk of how the Welshman had finally found the freedom he needed to really express himself on the pitch. The fact he scored both goals, the second a powerful run from the halfway line, only set the tongue-wagging into overdrive.
Those comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo once again reared their head, this time relating more specifically to the Real Madrid man’s transformation from wing-wizard to net-bothering leading man.
But while it's encouraging that a young player should be so determined to develop his game, could it be said that this mindset is selfish? Is this desire to take the game by the scruff of the neck currently to the detriment of Tottenham as a whole? Maximising the team's performance should surely come before that of any individual. And after all, if the opposition double-up on Bale, his team-mates – the likes of Van der Vaart, Luka Modric and Aaron Lennon – should be able to find more space in other areas of the pitch.
In Sunday’s defeat at Arsenal, Bale looked a shadow of the player who over the past two years has so often terrorised defences. In the first half played on the left of a midfield four, drifting inside when the mood struck. In the second half, he was shifted to the right as an inverted winger, continuing to attempt to cut infield.
The below Stats Zone diagrams show that, although the free-roaming Bale received the ball more often on Sunday than he did in the reverse fixture at White Hart Lane in October, he created three fewer chances than he did when focusing on attacking from a wide left position in the home fixture. In fact, the two chances he did create in the more recent match were from wide on the left.
Of course, the level of performance of Bale’s team-mates and opponents must also be taken into consideration when making these kind of comparisons, but this is not an isolated incident. The fact he struggled to make an impact when playing in a more central role in the recent FA Cup tie away to League One Stevenage should perhaps have been a warning that straying from the norm against a side battling for a top-four spot in the Premier League was an unwise move.
And it’s not just Bale himself that suffers. Left-back Benoit Assou-Ekotto, unsurprisingly, doesn’t get anywhere near the same degree of protection when Bale goes walkabout as he does when the former Southampton man focuses on attempting to get round the outside of the opposition right -back. The Cameroonian is also left bereft of options when it comes to distribution and bursting into the opponent’s half. The below diagram shows how he not only completed far fewer passes in Sunday’s defeat than in that match against Inter, but also that his forays forward were far more irregular.
Harry Redknapp will naturally be keen to keep Bale sweet, and giving him his desired freedom on the pitch may be a good way to do that. But he’ll need to be watchful that this doesn’t come at the expense of the fluidity and cutting-edge of his team, and recent evidence suggests that Spurs are at their best when playing a 4-4-1-1 system, with Bale wide left, Aaron Lennon wide right and Van der Vaart playing off Adebayor.
While there are signs England’s manager-in-waiting is eager to show he isn’t the tactical dinosaur his detractors paint him as, this is not the time to experiment. With a massive few months coming up for player, manager and club, sticking to the tried and tested for the time being looks the safest bet for all parties.
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