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Gareth Bale: stripping away the hype

4 April 2011

Gareth Bale caused Maicon numerous problems, but teams have begun to neutralise him as the season's progressed (GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)

One assist in twenty-six appearances. For a man named the “second best player in the world” by one prominent journalist, and supported for Player of the Year by many inside the game, Gareth Bale’s Premier League assists record, as a left midfielder, makes for surprise reading.

Seven league goals perhaps compensates for this, but he has provided as many goals for his team mates this season as David Bentley and Wayne Routledge, players deemed surplus to requirements at Tottenham. It’s admittedly a crude comparison; Bale undoubtedly is a better footballer than many of his solitary-assist peers, but the hype that surrounded him during the earlier part of the season has proved to be in part unjustified.

Gareth Bale fits the Premier League brand perfectly; he’s British, strong, fast and down-to-earth, a thoroughly likeable footballer. He’s demonstrated an ability to beat defenders with fantastic dribbling technique, attributes admired in British football from as far back and even earlier than Sir Stanley Matthews in the 1950s. We’ve always loved quick footballers, and as we’ll see with Bale, it may have clouded our judgement of him.

Bale’s talent has been acknowledged across the Premier League for at least a year now, particularly after two outstanding displays against Chelsea and Arsenal in April last year. He carried that late season form into the current campaign, and launched himself into European recognition following that performance at home against Inter Milan. So good was he on the night, it led the Times’ Chief Football Commentator Patrick Barclay to proclaim

Gareth Bale is the best player in the world (except Xavi, of course). And really pleasant human being. Can he remain so? Messi good example…

Am just saying Bale is second best in world at this moment. That’s all. It keeps changing. Beauty of football.

Links to those tweets here and here. Barclay’s reaction redefines knee-jerk; Bale was fantastic on the night, but it was thanks in no small part to Rafael Benitez’s slightly bizarre tactics that left Maicon, one of the world’s best right backs, horribly exposed to Bale’s frightening pace.

Teams in the Premier League weren’t always sure how to deal with Bale at the start of the season. He put in two strong displays against Wolves and Blackburn, albeit with different crossing success:

Six successful crosses out of ten against Wolves represented a fantastic return as Bale caused Kevin Foley numerous problems running behind. Two months later at home to Blackburn, the Welshman put in a man-of-the-match performance with two goals and an assist.

The Blackburn chalkboard also shows Bale’s ability to get past defenders – this time poor old Michel Salgado – and deliver crosses into good areas. He eventually earned an assist by persisting with this tactic, even if initial crosses may not have been successful. Unsuccessful crosses aren’t necessarily a reflection of the cross, it can be a result of poor anticipation or movement on a strikers’ part.

It’s understandable why Bale was widely praised for his contribution against Blackburn, but I do feel members of the public and press can get carried away with a player who can consistently beat defenders. Fast, mazy dribbles excite fans, but can exaggerate the perceived quality of the final product.

It’s an example of sight-based prejudice; Matthew Jarvis at Wolves has demonstrated an ability to cross the ball into threatening areas, but because he’s not as likely to leave a defender on his backside, he’ll receive less recognition for his efforts. Indeed, Jarvis has seven assists to his name this season. That’s not to say Jarvis is a more talented footballer than Bale, nor that Bale had a bad match against Blackburn, more an observation of what excites fans, often resulting in hyperbole.

As the season’s progressed, teams have figured out ways to counter the threat of Bale, particularly at home to Everton and away at Aston Villa:

Against Everton, Seamus Coleman and Phil Neville doubled up on Bale to great effect, rarely letting him get in behind the defence, and even forcing him to look for spaces elsewhere on the pitch. At Villa Park, Mark Albrighton and Carlos Cuellar both helped out Eric Lichaj to stop Bale, as shown by the numerous lost tackles down Spurs’ left midfield. Of course, Spurs went on to win against Aston Villa, showing that focusing your efforts on an individual can leave you short in other areas of the pitch.

However the point remains; it is possible for organised teams to effectively neutralise Bale. He isn’t the unstoppable force Patrick Barclay suggested (think how many teams have tried and failed to counteract Lionel Messi), and grew quieter as the season progressed, even before the onset of injuries.

The hype around Bale’s early season form has left a legacy; he’s such a front-runner for the Young Player of the Year the Mail didn’t feel the need to rate his credentials. He’s also received Robbie Savage’s vote for Player of the Year. Whilst the latter award has no outstanding candidates, three months of good form, exaggerated by performances in Europe, should not overshadow the contributions of other players.

Gareth Bale is a prodigious talent, but one of the world’s best players he certainly is not. Nor has he been the outstanding performer of the season across the league, and many would argue both Modric and van der Vaart have outperformed him to earn Spurs’ player of the season.

Bale excites people; his pace and trickery creates a sense of anticipation every time he receives the ball, and rightly so. But this can lead people to exaggerate. I don’t think anyone is suggesting he’s a complete footballer yet, but many have been too quick to jump to conclusions without observing his development as a player over time, even over a season.

Can he consistently provide goals and assists for club and country?

Only time, and not snap-judgements, will tell us that.

Can Gareth Bale one day become one of the world’s best players? Or is he already there? What have you made of his season? Please provide your thoughts in the comments section below.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Rezwan permalink
    4 April 2011 5:26 am

    Excellent article. But you just know that if Bale pulls off another performance against Ramos, it will start all over again. Ramos’ frequent ill-advised sorties up the pitch might well leave him exposed although you would expect Mourinho to have prepared far better tactics than Benitez.

    Bale needs to find another trick though. His reliance on speed is likely to make him injury-prone. Even though he contributes to the team by occupying two or three defenders, he needs more to become a top player.

    • 4 April 2011 6:58 am

      Cheers, and I agree I can’t see Mourinho not implementing measures to stifle Bale. He does look more likely than someone like Theo Walcott to expand his game though.

  2. Ben permalink
    4 April 2011 6:01 am

    I have spoken to you about this before and I thoroughly agree that Modric has been our best player this season. However, the stat that he only has one league assist is misguiding to say the least. He has been worth a lot more than that. It’s not helped by the fact that our strikers couldn’t hit a barn door this season. Crouch & Defoe have scored 4 goals between them this season in the league (2 each) from 41 league appearances between them. Bale’s assist count would be a lot higher had they been in form, I can tell you that.

    I definitely agree with your point that clubs have worked him out. More experienced managers know how to deal with the threat and in response to this, since Bale has come back from injury him & Lennon have been switching flanks throughout matches to try and throw defenses off. I’m not a fan of inverted wingers in a 4 man midfield but as they get a few more games under their belts doing it we’ll see how successful it is.

    Another thing I’ll add which I have mentioned in another post is the stats don’t tell all. Bale presence, which you mentioned, changes the way teams play against us and that accounts for some success for other players like van der Vaart and particularly Aaron Lennon since the turn of the year. His off the ball movement and his play in build up to goals and attacks won’t be the reason for all of his praise but it’s something worth noting. For instance, this doesn’t count as an assist- but that goal is all about him.

    That was a game you highlighted where he was ‘found out’ and the commentator mentions it as well in that video ‘he hadn’t had much of an impact on the game’ but he tore Villa apart in that one move which eventually led to us winning the game (final score was 2-1, that was the goal to make it 2-0 to us).

    I agree the hype was a bit over the top at the start of the season but he is young and definitely exciting, I would say this season he has been in the top 10 players in Europe based on performances both in the League and in the Champions League, but he has a long way to go in his development and having just signed a new contract at White Hart Lane I’d love to see it happen at Spurs.

    It is also worth noting he has had over 2 months out injured this season.

    • 4 April 2011 6:54 am

      Thanks for the comment, good to know what Spurs fans make of him. Was keen not to make the assist count the main point of the post for the reason you mentioned, I think Samir Nasri’s had about 2 assists this season but that’s not to say he’s had a poor season by any means.

      Would be good to see Spurs get a striker who, with the right service, can get 20+ goals a season to get a fuller idea of Bale’s talent and ability to adapt when targeted by opponents.

    • 4 April 2011 7:00 am

      And wanted to ask – are Bale’s days as a left back over? He’d be very difficult to pick up and double up on in this position, but you do lose an attacking threat. Perhaps behind an inverted winger (in a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1, given personnel)? Thoughts?

  3. Ben permalink
    4 April 2011 12:27 pm

    I think he will be a left back in the future, which is what Harry keeps saying. He got back into the team when Assou-Ekotto got injured last season as a left back playing behind Kranjcar or Modric (both right footers cutting inside), so he provided the width and usually we had Bassong, a left footed center back playing as well, so when Bale pushed up Bassong could cover left back and Huddlestone/Palacios could cover center back with the shift across.

    For now I say he should stay on the left of midfield, because of how well he links up with Assou-Ekotto and how well they’ve both done over the last 15 months I don’t think we should change anything, but there is that option. We’ve got Pienaar, Kranjcar (hopefully for more than just this season) and Modric who can play in front of him so it’s certainly an option. He is definitely our 2nd choice left back at the moment.

    As for the striker, if Palermo’s president’s quotes in the summer were true, we were quoted 14 million Euros for Edinson Cavani in the summer, post World Cup, and he said he was open to the move and we avoided it. He has 25 goals in Serie A this season for Napoli and is no where near at the peak of his game. Definitely one that slipped away as now he is being linked with Real Madrid & Man Utd at sky high prices. We’ve needed a striker for over a year now, since last January, we just haven’t taken a punt on someone. It’ll be interesting to see who we can attract this summer after our CL exploits, regardless of whether or not we finish 4th this season.

  4. Adam permalink
    4 April 2011 2:07 pm

    Just a word on the above debate regarding Bale as a left-back. Surely with the success of Dani Alves at right-back for Barca, Redknapp would want Bale to play a similar role, making blind, uncharted runs from the back. As Zonal Marking have pointed out this works well because Iniesta keeps possession on the left hand side of the field (at least when at his best) so the focus is off Alves. It strikes me that this would be the best tactic were Modric to do the same sort of job on the right hand side of central midfield, albeit slightly adapting his game to do so.

    Having said that, for me, Bale should stay on the left-wing (rather than left-back) without being afraid to venture inside. With the team that Spurs have now, Bale could easily do this with Modric/Pienaar temporarily replacing him out wide, giving the teamwidth.

    Just wondering whether you think Spurs should let Bale go were a £40m bid to be made? He’s been injured a lot recently and if his back problem is one that could repeatedly hold him back it might be worth cashing in for a forward and defender. But on the flipside, he is a fantastic talent and one that lifts the whole side – it must give the whole team a boost to know you have someone like Bale in the squad with such ability and work-rate.

    • 4 April 2011 3:11 pm

      Good points – I think to mimic the Dani Alves role Spurs will have to move away from the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 as Ben mentions earlier, so Spurs will need to accumulate the personnel for that (qualifying for the Champions League becomes a must to afford these players). Spurs wont have the balance to play bale at left back in a 4-4-2 with only Sandro/Palacios to play some form of holding role. But absolutely if they find the right system.

      Spurs will know Bale’s physical condition better than anyone, so I guess we’ll see in time! Certainly if they have doubts over his ability to play 20+ games a season they’ll cash in for such a bid; it reminds me of the Newcastle-Carroll situation in a way (though Carroll, injury-prone or otherwise, was not worth the £35m bid). But letting his value appreciate, if he plays enough games a season and continues to develop, and sell him at 26-29 years old would make the best business sense.

  5. ducky permalink
    4 April 2011 3:10 pm

    What it doesn’t tell you is that Using two men to mark Bale free’s up Modric in centre midfield to work his magic.

    • 4 April 2011 3:15 pm

      I agree, and I acknowledge that when noting the eventual result of the Aston Villa match. My point is more that some players Bale has been compared to – Messi – or even players who have performed in the league this season – Nani, Tevez for example – have performed more consistently despite (presumably) teams designing plans to stifle them.

      Bale will truly become world-class if he can perform under these constraints, meaning both himself and Modric have license to ‘work their magic’. But point very much taken.

  6. 4 April 2011 3:12 pm

    as a Spurs fan I couldn’t agree with you more. Gareth Bale is a fantastic footballer and is the type of player you don’t mind paying the extortionate prices for but he is often praised for doing very little the effects the game. One of my pet hates this season has been when he runs onto a wonderful pass from Huddlestone, Modric or Ekotto and gets a corner. The throngs of fans inside white hart lane instantly start the Bale, Bale, Bale chant when what he’s done is equal to Forrest Gump scoring a touchdown in that film he was in.

    A fantastic player but a player who if a club was mad enough to offer Spurs the reported £50m+ they would be crazy to turn that money down. When he’s good, Bale is not only brilliant but I believe you can put him in the same bracket as Lionel Messi or Ronaldo for match winning ability but to be talked about in the same sentence as those players his good performances need to be more often than 1 in 10.

  7. paxtonjay permalink
    4 April 2011 3:18 pm

    Good article. Hes shit isnt he!

    See if Villa do a £25m plus Bale swap for Downing shall we?

    • 4 April 2011 3:21 pm

      Thanks, but don’t think that’s what I was getting at! Just trying to apply some perspective to his achievements so far.

  8. 4 April 2011 3:26 pm

    It’s right that people went overboard about Bale. To say he was better than Messi is ludicrous.

    I think you’re underplaying how good Bale’s final ball is though. His shooting and crossing are fantastic. He has faded a bit since the new year, but that’s due in part to fitness concerns.

    And as for him having kind of future at left-back, I don’t see it. He’s never displayed any kind of defensive ability, all his attributes are attacking. Ryan Giggs didn’t play at left-back.

    Good article.

    • 4 April 2011 3:33 pm

      Thanks, and perhaps you’re right about me underplaying his crossing ability. Not sure it’s been fully exploited given Spurs’ lack of potency up front, mind, as mentioned in some comments earlier.

  9. Ben permalink
    4 April 2011 3:41 pm

    First of all to Omar, I can tell you paxtonjay (from his Spurs related username) is a Spurs fan and the comment about Downing should be take with a handful of salt, pepper and other condiments.

    On the point of the £40 million bid in the summer, or £50 million, or whatever it may end up being, we just published our financial results and to say that we will need to cash in to buy a defender and a striker would be wrong, hence the £40 million bid for Aguero in the last transfer window. We are fine for money as Premier League clubs go and Bale is irreplaceable to me, even though he may not be our player of the season. Also, selling your prized possession doesn’t exactly bode well if you want to attract big names with the money you get from selling him. Unless we get a bid completely out of this world and have 3 or 4 CLASS replacements, Champions League class, we would be potty to sell. Obviously if he wants to leave it’s another story.

  10. 4 April 2011 8:39 pm

    Well said. I’ve had a difficult time putting words to why I couldn’t buy much of the hyperbole. You’ve now done so for me.

  11. Mark permalink
    18 April 2011 12:45 pm

    To be fair I think I could get past Michel Salgado, isn’t he about 48?

    Definitely agree about Jarvis (and Kightly as well), if Wolves had had them both free for the whole of the season I think they would have had a top-half finish.

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