“He plays on the left, he plays on the left, Gareth Bale, he plays on the left,” was the satirical chant that came erupting from the Spurs end at Loftus Road back in April.
Supporters had finally baulked at seeing their most fearsome attacking outlet dither and dally in a more central position and even more sacrilegiously, out on the right hand side. But times are changing at White Hart Lane. With the new manager, Andre Villas-Boas, comes a new system. Whisper it quietly, but Gareth Bale might start moving about again- and it could be a defining decision for club and player.
Gareth Bale polarized many towards the beginning of his career, and to a certain extent now, in designating where his most effective position is. The Welshman of course began life as a fledgling left back. After a difficult start to his Spurs career, it was only when he capitalized on injury to Benoit Assou-Ekotto in the 09-10 season, that he really shot to prominence.
Part attacking excellence and part Redknapp’s desire to fit Bale and Assou-Ekotto into the same team, saw the Welshmen deployed higher up the pitch, and the rest is history. Although not all still see his future as an out and out left-winger. Barcelona’s Dani Alves has come out on record saying that in their well oiled system, Bale would be a left-back. For them, the full-back is the crux of their play, the initiation of their football.
The difference is perhaps now though, that Bale’s attacking threat and in particular his goal scoring potential, is a resource that simply cannot be ignored. Bale notched up 12 goals in all competitions last season and 14 assists. A real zenith in the season came at Carrow Road in December, where Bale put away two outstanding goals as he tore Paul Lambert’s Norwich to pieces. Bale seemingly had free reign in this fixture, and as his superb second showed, he certainly has the capacity to cause carnage when deployed centrally.
The problem being though, the development from the directness of a winger to the craft of a more central one, is fraught with far more difficulty than perhaps both Bale and Redknapp imagined. The trick was repeated far too often and it certainly didn’t help Spurs’ horrible run post February. Whilst not making a direct comparison, Cristiano Ronaldo’s gradual shift to a freer, more central role took a lot of time. Bale would do well to understand that.
And whilst his deployment on the right was at times completely derided by Spurs fans, it would be naïve to write the obituary for Gareth Bale’s more central aspirations. Harry Redknapp’s tactics, if they can indeed by called that, always determined that a Bale midfield adventure was going to be doomed from the start.
The team was set up to play with wingers, but one of Spurs biggest problems was a lack of cutting edge in the final third and a large part of that was due to a hell of a lot of congestion centrally. As Parker sat, both Modric and Van der Vaart would loiter in and around the similar sort of space, as Spurs would ping the ball about on the edge of an opponent’s penalty area. All very nice, but not always so effective- and there wasn’t room in the inn for one more.
And if you were to use the infamous QPR fixtures that saw the supporters voice their displeasure, you can understand why it’s not necessarily Bale’s fault he failed to harness an influence. At times, Spurs played with nearly four central midfielders in Sandro, Modric, Parker and Van der Vaart when he sat deep. Whilst he spent periods on the right during that game, there was simply no way he could have had a drastic influence in that team. Bale had his faults straying out of his position, but he did so in a system that wasn’t suited to doing so.
And this is why the Andre Villas-Boas style, brings not just more flexibility to Gareth Bale’s team, but to that of the entire team. Where as the top, modern sides can fluidly interchange positions, Spurs style under Redknapp made it increasingly difficult. This isn’t a direct critique, more a subtle observation.
In a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, which Villas-Boas will deploy, the front three attacking players will be offered the license to roam. The success of the front three in his Porto team in particular, offer a tantalizing prospect for Spurs fans- if they can get it right. The success of Hulk as in inside-right like forward isn’t something unattainable for Bale and Villas-Boas. Bale has the talent to take a similar role on the left hand side and run with it; combine his pace with his wand of a left foot and he could have a real chance to chime in with 15 league goals a season.
The issue with such a system is that there will be casualties. Aaron Lennon is an archetypal, chalk-on-boots winger. It would be silly to write him off before a ball has been kicked, although question marks will remain as to whether the diminutive winger has a large enough skill-set to work in a more fluid, versatile system. But as Villas-Boas has shown already, everyone in this Tottenham Hotspur squad will have a chance to impress pre-season.
But it offers an interesting prospect for the coming season. Either way, supporters will be viewing a new set-up at White Hart Lane next season and consequently, everything must start with a clean slate. That must include the pre-conceived prejudice of a more floating, central Gareth Bale role.
Endless amounts of hyperbole have been applied to Gareth Bale since his one-man destruction of Inter Milan in the Champions League. But the truth is that the best may be yet to come from Gareth Bale. It could be that his best position is, and will remain as a traditional left-winger. But under a new system and the fresh regime of Andre Villas-Boas, we could be about to witness a whole new Gareth Bale.
Left, middle, right or goal- where would you have Bale playing? Do you think AVB can unlock even more out of the Welshmen or should he try keeping it simple? Tell me what you think Spurs fans, follow @samuel_antrobus on Twitter and bat us your views