Time to stop this Gareth Bale sideshow?

Gareth Bale, Tottenham Hotspur

Whether you play the game at a semi-pro level or simply just dabble in a bit of Sunday League whenever the hangover allows, few of us would turn down the chance to receive some coaching from Tottenham Hotspur’s mercurial left-winger, Gareth Bale. And thanks to the power of the Internet, we all have a chance to listen to some of Welshman’s top tips for improving your game.

Indeed, on one football performance based-website, readers are given an in-depth insight on how to improve a whole raft of skills and attributes, with everything from improving your speed to optimizing your warm-up available to learn under the Welshman’s guide-up.

Although while pictures of a fresher-faced Bale with a slightly more suspect haircut give you a clue to as to how long ago the segment was put together, it was in his advice on taking a free-kick that we perhaps get a better of idea of the time that must have since passed.

“You have to be versatile otherwise goalkeepers will know where you’re going,” he quips.

“Make sure your standing foot is on the inside of the ball, hit the outside of the ball with your striking foot to curl it and follow through with that foot for power.”

Pretty staple words that have adorned many a coaching manual before it and after all, this is someone who knows how to put the ball in the back of the net from a free kick. Bale’s Wikipedia entry hardly offers a staunch analytical breakdown of his career progression so far, but few with argue with the statement about how he earned a reputation as a ‘free-kick specialist’ at Southampton.

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Yet while every other aspect of Gareth Bale’s game has improved almost beyond recognition, you’d be hard pressed to say the same about his free-kick taking ability. In fact, if anything, in terms of productivity it might have even regressed since he left St. Mary’s in 2007.

You could argue that when you’ve had to resort to picking holes in his ability to put the ball in the net from a dead-ball 30 yards out, you must harness something of a vendetta against Bale and his outrageous array of attacking gifts. But for most Tottenham Hotspur fans, it’s a gripe born more out of frustration than anything else.

Because fans know what the Welshman is capable of with what is an absolute wand of a left-foot. He may have only been 17 when he came to North London, but his deadly reputation at dead-balls wasn’t without foundation. Bale had already scored several peaches for the Saints before hitting the headlines with a wonderful curled effort against Slovakia in 2006 to become Wales’ youngest ever goalscorer.

Be it the left side of the penalty area or veering towards the right, he seemed equally adept at causing goalkeepers problems from anywhere within a considerable range from goal. And as soon as he arrived at Spurs, it didn’t take him long to make his presence felt from a free-kick perspective, with Bale scoring a superb effort in the 3-1 home defeat against Arsenal during his debut season back in 2007.

Although since then, while the goals haven’t quite dried up all together, Bale doesn’t seem to be the fearsome beast from a dead-ball that many thought he’d go on to be. The looming presence of him standing over a ball, Cristiano Ronaldo-esque, carries an awful lot of threat in its intent, but seemingly not quite as much within its execution. And it’s within that Ronaldo comparison that bears a considerable amount of frustration within some pockets of fans.

The Real Madrid man was hardly the first person to attempt a ‘knuckle’ style of free-kick – a technique that in its most basic guise generates topspin on the ball giving it both a ferocious dip and an unpredictable flightpath – but he’s certainly of its greatest proponents. But Ronaldo is peerless to only Lionel Messi in the game and even he often still frustrates many at the Santiago Bernabeu with his wayward efforts.

This isn’t to say Bale isn’t capable of perfecting the art and we’ve seen him strike spectacular efforts twice this season against both Liverpool in the 2-1 home victory and also for his country against Serbia last September. When they do go in, they’re absolutely box-office – but is Bale sacrificing substance in favour of style?

Andre Villas-Boas certainly doesn’t seem to think so, with the Portuguese lauding Bale’s unique free-kick taking style, telling reporters after the Liverpool game: “He [Bale] keeps on practising this technique and we are pleased to have it.”

At only 23, Bale’s got years ahead of him to perfect the art of the knuckle free kick and while out-and-out comparisons with Ronaldo are somewhat dangerous, it’s worth noting that the Portuguese’s productivity with this style of free-kick most certainly didn’t happen over night. Although for a player with such a natural gift at taking the more curled, orthodox free-kick, it’s difficult to not feel a slither of frustration as his current raft of attempts more often than not find themselves up in the stands.

The temptation to push Bale towards taking some of his own advice is a little too tempting to resist, but given the Welshman’s belief in his own ability and his manager’s seeming happiness to let him indulge in his current free-taking style, fans at White Hart Lane shouldn’t expect a change anytime soon. A goal against Manchester United from a dead ball this weekend however, would go a long way to silencing the doubters.

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