What will life without Bale be like for Tottenham? Is there a replacement waiting in the wings? Comparisons between Bale and potential replacements within the Tottenham squad.
Please note: that this article was written before news broke of Clint Dempsey’s potential departure.
With Gareth Bale’s transfer to Real Madrid seemingly imminent, it is time for Andre Villas-Boas and Tottenham Hotspur to turn their attention to the future and plot how they are going to replace Bale’s contribution to the team. One piece of the jigsaw seems to be on his way, in the form of Valencia striker Roberto Soldado for a fee of £26 million, yet the question of who is going to play behind/around him is not as obvious. With potentially £60 million still in the bank, even after the Soldado deal, it could be quite easy for Tottenham to look around for a replacement. Yet, this may be premature. With AVB’s squad boasting the talents of Lewis Holtby, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Moussa Dembele, that money could be better off spent on other areas of the squad if one of these players had both the opportunity and ability to prove themselves in the number 10 role.
The issue for Tottenham is that Gareth Bale is, quite simply, a very special talent. He is currently up there with the likes of Suarez and Falcao in the echelon of players that sit just behind Messi and Ronaldo as the best in the world. His talent comes from not just his technical ability but how this works with his physicality and mental strength. So how do you replace an individual like that? The only answer for AVB is to invest the money in the squad as whole and improve its overall performance levels. Yet the situation becomes more complex when you consider that despite Bale’s contribution to the side last year, Tottenham failed to reach the holy grail of 4th spot and the promise of Champions League riches. This means that AVB not only needs to replace Bale’s contribution, but also improve upon the overall team’s performances, hence a more urgent need for the money to be reinvested in the squad as a whole.
How much does Bale contribute?
One of the stand out moments on the 2012/13 Premier League season came at Upton Park. In the dying minutes of the game, Bale scored an incredible goal to snatch all three points for Tottenham. This is just one of many examples in which Bale goal tilted the outcome of the game in Tottenham’s favour. Overall, Bale directly affected the result of 10 games, 30.3% of the games he played in, securing 18 points for his team and without his contribution they could have finished as low as 7th place. He also showed an ability to score goals across the span of the season, scoring his 21 goals in 17 of the 33 matches he appeared in. This equates to a goal in 51.52% of games played , which compared to Van Persie (55.26%) and Suarez (48.49%) shows that his goal return was similar to a striker rather than a left winger/number 10. He also scored a massive 31.82% of Tottenham’s total season goal tally. This puts into perspective the challenge that is facing AVB in not only replacing the goals that Bale has scored for his team, but also finding a way to snatch the unlikely results either through a piece of individual brilliance or a collective team effort.
Who is available to Villas Boas?
One of the more obvious ways that Tottenham have attempted to maintain and improve upon the goal tally is the arrival of Roberto Soldado from Valencia. Soldado has scored a total of 65 goals in the previous four seasons for Valencia, scoring 19 last season and averaging at a 19% chance conversion rate over the last four years (statistics courtesy of @BassTunedToRed). While this acquisition will certainly improve a Tottenham side lacking serious firepower in the central striker area, he is a quintessential penalty box poacher who will offer a goal scoring touch but not the dynamic dribbling and creative spark that Bale offers alongside his goals. However, it is clear that Soldado is to play at the apex of the Spurs attacking line. It is the position behind him that Tottenham will look to strengthen with new talent.
As seen above, Bale operated as one of the offensive ‘3’ in a 4-2-3-1 formation last season. He started off the year playing from the left but as the season continued and his influence upon Tottenham’s results increased, he was moved into the number 10 role behind the main striker where he could have the most impact on the game. With Lennon most likely to be a first-choice starter on the right hand side, that leaves the number 10 and LW roles up for grabs to any of the current Tottenham squad members or potential recruits. Something that AVB has done during his time at Spurs Lodge is build up quite a selection of young attacking talent, such as Lewis Holtby and Gylfi Sigurdsson, who after spending their first seasons in North London as, mainly, substitutes could play a major role next season in a revamped Tottenham. There is also the possibility of moving Moussa Dembele further up the pitch, ahead of an all-Brazilian midfield pairing of Sandro and Paulinhio, in an effort to offer a different dimension to Holtby or Sigurdsson.
AVB certainly has options at his disposal to solve this issue, as it will be impossible to find one individual that can offer as much to the team as Bale does currently, but it is important to look at each individual’s performances and their potential before jumping the gun and splurging the cash on a unnecessary recruitment.
How to replace Bale’s goal return
For the purposes of this comparison, Bale’s 2012/13 performances were compared to that of Dembele’s from 2011/12, where he played a more offensive role behind the striker at Fulham. Dembele’s 2012/13 performances are also included. Similarly, statistics from Sigurdsson’s loan move to Swansea in 2011/12 were used because he was playing more regularly as a first-choice number 10, as well as his 2012/13 statsitcs from Tottenham. Finally, statistics from the 2012/13 season were used for Clint Dempsey as he was a regular member of the first team. Unfortunately, I was unable to find the relevant statistics for Lewis Holtby before he arrived in London, but have included him despite him only playing 508 minutes of football due to his potential.
The table above shows a comparison of each individual’s goal scoring statistics. The top three performances are highlighted in green for each category. First, it should be noted that the majority of these players would come under the ‘attacking midfielder’ or ‘advanced playmaker’ brackets and are not known or noted for their relative goal scoring prowess. Unsurprisingly, Bale is clearly the superior goal scorer to any individual here, averaging a goal every 139.24 minutes of play. In terms of replacements, there are two individuals that stand out as having a significant impact for the team’s goals for column.
The first is Clint Dempsey, who scored 7 Premier League goals in his first season as a Tottenham player. His chance conversion rate of 14% was only two percent lower than Bale and considering he was often pushed to the left hand side to accommodate the Welshmen, it could be theorised that this could increase when playing a more central role. He also had a similar clear-cut chance conversion of 57%, compared to 58% for Bale, scoring 4 and missing 3 of the clear cut chances presented to him.
The second player that could potentially offer a significant goal return playing the number 10 role is Gylfi Sigurdsson. Sigurdsson’s 2012/13 stats are not overly impressive, yet he still managed to bang 3 goals despite starting over 63% of his games from the substitute bench. If you look into Sigurdsson’s time at Swansea, where he was a regular starter at the apex of a midfield three, then his performances stand out significantly when compared to the other potential players. Sigurdsson averaged a goal every 214.14 minutes, second only to Bale, and scored 7 goals in just 18 appearances for the Welsh club. He had an identical chance conversion stat of 16% and had a superior clear cut conversion rate of 67%, but this came from only 3 clear cut chances in 1499 minutes of football, which equals a clear cut chance (CCC) every 499.67 minutes, compared to 12 in 2924 minutes for bale, which is a CCC every 243.67 minutes. This indicates that Bale may be more adept at picking his moments to make himself available in space, such as the timing of his runs into the box or beyond the last defender.
One thing to note during this comparison is the sheer number of shots that Bale took last season. Over the course of the season he took 133 shots at goal with 73 finding the target. This was more than double any of the other individuals, and equated in him taking a shot on target every 40.05 minutes and shot at goal every 21.98 minutes. It is often said, “If you don’t shoot you don’t score,” yet Bale may be taking this to the extreme as the number of shots it takes him to score a goal (6.33) is comparable to that of both Dempsey (7.00) and Sigurdsson (6.29) in his 2011/12 season. Of the 73 shots that Bale found the target with he scored with 28% of them, but yet again, this is comparable to both Dempsey (27%) and bettered by Sigurdsson in 11/12 (30%).
This suggests that it may simply be Bale’s ability to get his shots away on a regular and consistent basis that allows him to score so many goals, especially when combined with his natural athletic ability to run past and beyond defenders into more advantageous shooting positions. It was a common sight last year to see Bale take one touch to shift the ball to his left foot and unleash a shot towards goal or bounding through a gap into a one on one situation with the keeper. If, say, Sigurdsson got a regular run in the team next season, it could be possible that he could carry a significant goal threat especially from distance, as seen from the goals he scored at Swansea, which could in part make up for the number of goals that Tottenham will have lost if the sale of Bale does go through. However, I do not believe that any of these individuals have the ability to score as many goals as Bale did last season, especially in the high pressure must win situations where he was able to pull a rabbit out of the hat to drag Tottenham along. For this ability is why he is so highly rated in the footballing world. Nevertheless, these individuals could contribute to the overall goals tally in alternative ways, either through scoring goals themselves or by creating opportunities for others to score.
A creative comparison
As previously mentioned, an alternative method of replacing the goal scoring prowess of Bale is to spread the goals around the team and have a more creative player in the number 10 role. As you can see above, Bale can be seen to be a highly creative player, however he does not stand out amongst the rest of the individuals like he does when their goal scoring records compare. Again, there are two individuals that really stand out when looking to their creative statistics, and those are Dembele and Sigurdsson.
Dembele is an interesting case, as he appears to have improved his creativity when he has been deployed in a deeper midfield role in 2012/13 compared to 2011/12. However, this could be due to the fact that he has been playing in a more successful attack orientated team under AVB than he was at Fulham in the 2011/12 season. Also, at the age of 26 he may be maturing and developing into an all round player under AVB’s tutelage. Whilst playing the central midfield role Dembele created 52 chances at a rate of one chance every 42.48 minutes. He contributed three assists for his teams but only laid on three clear cut chances compared to Bale’s 11.
This suggests that whilst he was able to provide people with opportunities to shoot, he never consistently supplied high quality chances for his teammates. What is surprising is his ability to carry the ball forward, with Dembele completing more dribbles at a higher success rate than Bale. Dembele certainly excels in the central midfield role but by pushing him up the pitch you may be limiting your sides attacking prowess for a more stable and competitive midfield as Dembele was only involved, through either scoring or assisting, in 6.06% of Tottenham’s total goal tally for that season.
The second player to impress in the creative stakes in Sigurdsson in his 2011/12 season at Swansea. He created chances at a higher rate than Bale with a chance created every 57.65 minutes and was the best individual at creating clear cut chances for his team with a clear cut chance created every 249.83 minutes. It is also important to notice that despite playing a bit part role last year Sigurdsson still managed to lay on a clear cut chance every 304.50 minutes.
This could suggest that playing in the creative number 10 role Sigurdsson could become both a goal threat and a creative force for his team. He appears to have a different style to the direct all action Bale, with only 17 successful dribbles at an, impressive, 56.67% success rate. All this was achieved whilst playing for a newly promoted team, so it would not be hard to think that with more talented individuals around him he may have more chance to shine. Finally, despite all the talk of Bale’s importance to Tottenham’s goals for tally, Sigurdsson was actually involved in a higher percentage of the total team goals at Swansea than Bale was for Tottenham in 2012/13. This again could suggest that he is comfortable being the main focal point of a teams attack and that, when it matters, he has the skills and mentality to produce what is needed for his team. In no way am I suggesting that he could hit the heights that Bale did last year, yet has the potential to go some way to making up for his loss and allowing the £60 million pounds to be better spent elsewhere.
So what is the answer?
There is no single answer to how Tottenham will cope without Bale, yet with the potential of the likes of Sigurdsson and the imminent arrival of Soldado, it would appear that Tottenham maybe able to replace Bale’s contribution to the teams by spreading the responsibility across a number of different offensive players. By having the poacher Soldado upfront, AVB will be looking for a higher goal return from his forward line than last years 16 scored between Defoe and Adebayor. Furthermore, with £60 million in the bank, he can look to strength other areas of the team, such as the left back and left wing positions if he feels the likes of Sigurdsson or Holtby can step up to the plate. If Sigurdsson can recreate his Swansea form and even build upon it, he is only 23, then that can go some way to filling the number 10 role and adding a slightly different dimension to the Spurs attack. No single player is going to able to directly affect results the way that Bale did but with shrewd investment and backing from Levy and the board, AVB has the potential to build a fantastic team with the Bale money. As for Gareth Bale, Madrid will be getting one hell of a player, for a hell of a lot of money.