During Spurs’ preseason Gareth Bale made headlines by wearing the number 9 in a couple friendly matches. In one conversation with a fan at a players meet-and-greet he was asked about the choice and said there was no chance of his wearing his old number 3 shirt, but that it’d be something new. And sure enough, on match day one Bale emerged from the tunnel against Newcastle wearing Rafa Van der Vaart’s old number 11 shirt (and showing off probably five pounds of added muscle). The questions followed: How would Andre Villas Boas deploy the talented Welsh winger? The first match with Newcastle offers some hint of an answer.
To begin, look at these two heat maps from two of Bale’s finest matches with Spurs, the 3-1 win over Inter at White Hart Lane in the Champions League and last year’s 4-0 victory over Liverpool at the Lane:
In both matches, Bale was deployed as a very traditional left midfield player. It was a system that suited Spurs because Bale would stick to the touchline and wait for Luka Modric to spray the ball out to him. Then he’d run for days and make the opponent right back look a fool (I think Maicon is just now catching up with him). But as Modric’s form took a dive last winter and Aaron Lennon missed time due to injury, Bale began to adopt more of a free role as an advanced left creator, somewhat like the role Samir Nasri thrived in at Arsenal, though Bale is certainly more of a winger than Nasri. As a result his role became less “wait on the line for Luka to pick me out” and more “do my best impression of CR7.” So the Norwich match, which was his most successful imitation of Ronaldo last season:
Another match worth noting is the 3-2 loss at Eastlands to City in which Bale scored the second best goal I’ve ever seen him score in a Spurs shirt. (He’ll never top the volley he hit at Stoke during the 09/10 campaign.)
That brings us to this season’s opening match with Newcastle. Sporting the #11 shirt, Bale looked much more like a left sided forward than a traditional left midfielder.
A few things to note about Bale in AVB’s system: The first thing that jumps out from this game is how few touches he had. The only match that compares from those above is the Norwich match last season. But what both those games have in common is the marginal or nonexistent role Modric played in the side. Against Norwich, Modric played on the right because of Lennon’s injury and Niko Kranjcar played up top in Van der Vaart’s role. So the two best suppliers of the squad were out of their normal roles. As a result, Bale got less service and had to come inside to get the ball. Something similar happened against Newcastle. Sigurdsson should’ve been the distributor, but he was pressed further up to aid undersized striker Jermain Defoe. (That will be less of an issue once Adebayor arrives.) That meant that the midfielders playing behind Bale were Sandro and Livermore, neither of whom are great passers. Add that Assou-Ekotto, Spurs’ next best creative talent, spent much of the match on his heels preoccupied with trying to control Ben Arfa, and you have a recipe for limited service to your star left winger. But there’s another issue here as well: If Gareth Bale has proven anything over the last couple of seasons, it’s that he isn’t a one tricky pony. He’s not a player who has to stay on the touch line and rely on his pace to be effective. Bale is a capable dribbler, an excellent passer of the ball, and has an excellent shot (ask Joe Hart). So he’s the sort of player who can move inside without much difficulty.
The net result of this is that Spurs may be headed, amusingly enough, to a lopsided formation not dissimilar from that used by Arsenal’s invincibles that could be alternatively described as 4-4-2, 4-2-2-2, or 4-2-3-1. The way it will work for Spurs is that Gareth Bale will function as a wide auxiliary striker to support the main number nine in the middle. The other two advanced players will play slightly more withdrawn roles, with the number ten staying a bit deeper to support the two midfielders and function as a more conventional trequeartistsa. And Bale’s opposite – presumably Aaron Lennon – will function as a more conventional wing. We’ve seen this sort of thing before where wide men move inside and overwhelm central defenders with their mix of skill on the ball and tremendous pace. Again, Thierry Henry comes to mind. So does Cristiano Ronaldo. But a better comparison, given his manager, might be to two less regarded players who have played that same wide auxiliary striker role in Villas Boas’ system: Hulk at Porto and Daniel Sturridge at Chelsea. In both cases, Villas Boas deployed the player in an advanced wide role that’s part advanced creator, part wing, part left or right forward and trusted that the player’s strength, skill, quickness and pace would be too much for the defense to handle. And the return he got from both players would suggest that he was right.
There is a danger in this, of course: Sometimes when Bale doesn’t receive good service he can drift out of games. One of the most frustrating things about last season’s swoon was watching the way Bale marginalized himself when he got frustrated by lack of service out wide and started trying to come inside to receive the ball. It made him easier to defend because he and Van der Vaart ended up running into each other, and it severely reduced our width on the attack. But if the number ten in AVB’s system plays a more withdrawn role – and once we have a proper number nine up top rather than an undersized poacher I have no doubts that’s what will happen – then there will be room for Bale to move inside without running into a teammate. Two other exciting points: Bale will still get wide and make his crosses when given the chance, as he did against Newcastle. But he’ll also have the option of cutting inside more often. For Spurs supporters, this change will go one of two directions: Toward the frustrating underachievement of last year’s second half when Bale ran himself out of games by coming inside too often or toward the goal scoring glory of previous wide men who became unplayable auxiliary strikers. Hulk is one of the biggest names to make the shift, but the most ambitious in the ears of Spurs fans will be Spurs tormentor Thierry Henry or Real Madrid golden boy Cristiano Ronaldo. The rest of the season promises to be very interesting for Tottenham’s flying Welshman.
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