Gareth Bale started his Tottenham career as a 17 year-old left back who moved from Southampton in 2007, bringing with him the usual promise that comes with signing a relatively expensive young British player. After a slow start hampered by injury and a curse that left Spurs without a victory in his first 24 appearances, he began to put in strong performances at left back and took advantage of the absence of Benoit Assou-Ekotto to earn a starting position further forwards on the left wing on his return to the side.
The following season in 2010/11 he laid down a massive marker in his career, where he was able to demonstrate an eye for the goal, and show his immense pace and power over his opponents as well as his defensive qualities. His performances that season won him the PFA Player of the Year award, and confirmed his value to the side at a time when Spurs were also making strides as a team and looking to strengthen in all areas. The next step in his development saw Harry Redknapp begin to utilise him in a free role, starting centrally behind the striker but being encouraged to drift and take up positions where he could be more of a threat. Andre Villas Boas picked up where Redknapp left off, and used him both on the left and through the middle, however with players like Sigurdsson, Dempsey and Holtby all capable of playing there also, he would mainly feature on the left and then work his way central. You can see the way he progressed positionally within the different sides over the last 5 years:
Bale’s second season for Spurs in which he would feature at left back in the absence of Assou-Ekotto. He made 16 appearances but didn’t get on the scoresheet in the league, he did however prove to be a reliable defender with the ability to get forwards.
The 2010/11 season at left midfield which won Bale PFA Player of the Year, mainly for his performances in Europe. From this position higher up the pitch he could utilise his pace and found the net 7 times in the league.
Bale’s current central position where he is now thriving, which earned him PFA Player of the Year again, this time completely dominating his opponents, scoring 21 league goals and becoming Spurs key man.
Perhaps the easiest and most important period to look at to analyse Gareth Bale is the two most recent seasons, during which he has finally progressed into his ‘best’ positions as a left winger, or attacking centre midfielder. When looking at the numbers, the most noteable and interesting point is that Gareth Bale was statistically stronger in nearly all departments in 11/12, compared to 12/13 – his best season yet which has made him a very expensive transfer target. In 11/12 he won possession back more frequently (143), he played over 300 more successful passes, averaging 44 passes per game at 83% accuracy compared to 34 per game at 79% last season. He also completed more successful dribbles (65), created more chances (84) and made more assists (10). So what changed about Bale’s game in 2012/13 to turn him into a star performer while his statistics suffered?
It is not until we analyse the ‘Goal Attempts’ column that we begin to find some answers. He doubled his career total for Spurs with 21 goals in the league last season, he took 35 more shots and increased his overall chance conversion by 7%, his conversion of clear-cut chances by 33%, and in short, he has become far more efficient than ever before. From a tactical perspective, the arrival of Andre Villas Boas last season has played an important role in this, and he has maximized Bale’s threat in central areas. As a manager who is far more thorough and tactically astute than Redknapp, a major component of his philosophy is unlocking the psychological potential in his players. The evidence suggests that he and AVB were prepared to sacrifice the statistics we saw in 11/12 to achieve better results on the pitch.
‘Sometimes certain tasks might not achieve specific physical data that rewards premium efficiency in terms of a physical performance. You have to be careful with statistics.’
Andre Villas Boas
Bale has changed his game in some ways that can’t necessarily be measured by statistics, he certainly grew in confidence. The numbers suggest he has began to take greater risks, being more selfish and taking more shots, which led to him scoring more and creating less, but is he now at that ‘world class’ level? Many people measure world class quality by a players impact on their team in big games, big moments, and across the season, and perhaps this is exactly where Bale stepped up from the seasons before. The manner and quality of his last minute winner against West Ham for example, his contribution of goals at a time when he was the only Spurs player getting on the scoresheet, the sheer amount of away goals he scored was impressive enough (a product of him exploiting space in behind on the counter-attack). On top of this he has now put a stamp on his style of play, he has trademark characteristics, and strikes fear into keepers after developing his free kicks, he forces managers to adjust their strategies to counter his threat, and can now go a game completely quiet before turning it on its head, a notable trait of all of the players we associate with world class quality.
Here we see an example of Bale against Stoke City last season, where he played in the attacking central role. He took up good positions throughout the game, sometimes in the pockets of space between the midfield and defence, but where he is most happy is starting from a high position then dropping deep to receive ahead of the midfield. Both banks of four either cannot track him, or are scared of getting tight to him as he can quite easily exploit the spaces left in behind them, but he can use this to his advantage as it allows him room to score from distance when they step off him. Receiving between the lines is something that Bale is still adapting to, and he does not match the quality of players like David Silva or Juan Mata in these tight spaces (mainly because he is not that type of player). However as shown in the image below, he demonstrates that he can identify the pockets, play off the blind side of his markers, or with enough space take players on.
“People have been double-marking or even triple-marking me. I’ve had to mix my game up and I’m improving all the time, especially in that free role.”
Gary Neville once described Cristiano Ronaldo as a ‘bully’ who preys on players weaknesses, and Gareth Bale is now learning to be just like him by isolating players in 1 v 1 situations. Teams are now doing all they can to stop him doing this. At 23 Bale is now primed to take his career to the next level, and it probably won’t be long before a big money move to Real Madrid or Manchester United puts him on a bigger stage. With most players reaching their peak in their late twenties, it will be very interesting to see the way he develops over the next few years in terms of position and performance.
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