By Ewan Roberts
The manicured blades of grace at White Hart Lane have been graced by a tradition of exhilarating wingers, from Cliff Jones to David Ginola, but in Gareth Bale Tottenham may have found their greatest ever wide-man.
The Southampton academy product has transformed from an athletic but wiry teenager to one of the league’s most palpably electric wingers; at full-flight the Welshman is an unstoppable juggernaut, a fusion of power and pace, and on Wednesday night he showed once more what an elegant and unrelenting bulldozer he has become.
Bale stole the show against Liverpool, as he has a habit of doing, grabbing an assist, firing a free-kick past Pepe Reina and, unluckily, sending the ball past his own goalkeeper. He has now found the back of the net six times in his last nine leagues games, and is just four strikes shy of the double-figure target he set himself before the start of the season.
His seventh-minute assist for Aaron Lennon was a majestic lesson in wide-play; Bale received the ball with his back to goal in his own half before evading Steven Gerrard and side-stepping Glen Johnson, with both players watching helplessly from the floor as Bale darted away. Next he outstripped Joe Allen before knocking the ball past Martin Skrtel and then fizzing a pass across goal for Lennon to tap-in.
Bale has garnered an unfair reputation as being more hype than substance, but his performances this season suggest it’s time to throw out the Public Enemy record and accept that the 23-year-old’s plaudits are justified.
The coruscating Cardiff-born winger has left a trail of punch-dunk right-backs lurching towards the nearest taxi rank in his wake, and Johnson and Joey O’Brien have joined that ever-expanding list in the last four days alone. Bale was rampant against West Ham on Sunday too, scoring a deft volley after ratting the crossbar in the first half.
Comparisons with Cristiano Ronaldo are inevitable, from their physicality to their well-groomed appearances, from their machismo swagger to their free-kick stances and techniques. Bale and Ronaldo are archetypes of the perfect Premier League blueprint: beautiful yet blunt instruments blending typically foreign craftsmanship with the brutish savagery and power of English football.
Not that Bale has always been such a fine specimen; once plastered in kinesio tape and frequently sidelined with niggles, he’s at last enjoying a rare spell of uninterrupted, injury-free game time, aided by the special stretching exercises he’s taken up to deal with a recurring back problem.
The Welsh winger has also been abetted by new manager Andre Villas-Boas’ change of tactics, and, rather oddly, the departure of Luka Modric. The Portuguese manager has shifted the dynamic of Spurs’ offence, promoting a counter-attacking style that suits Bale’s strengths.
Frustrated against the deep defences he regularly faced, Bale scored no league goals between February and the end of last season. With Modric dictating possession, Spurs’ opponents sat deeper and deprived space for Bale to run into. Now, as part of AVB’s springloaded counter-attack, Bale has more room to manipulate, more space to burst into, more ground to cover and, crucially, greater opportunity to punish the opposition.
Bale was as ruthlessly clinical on Wednesday night as Liverpool were profligate. The Reds’ admittedly brilliant ball retention under Brendan Rodgers – they had 30% more possession and attempted 249 more passes than Spurs – is worth little if they continue to be so wasteful in front of goal.
Luis Suarez, one of the league’s outstanding strikers and Liverpool’s talisman, was described rather aptly by Spurs boss Villas-Boas as a creator of riots, but at White Hart Lane the Uruguayan delivered more of a sit-in protest than the balaclava-wearing, flare-wielding, window-smashing pandemonium that Liverpool required.
The former Ajax forward had one of the worst goals to shots ratios in the league last year (8.6%) and though he leads the division’s scoring charts this season, his chance conversion rate has increased by just 4.4% (by way of comparison, Papiss Cisse boasted a goal to shots rate of 33.3% last term).
Suarez, like Liverpool as a whole, lack composure in front of goal and desperately require a wide player of Bale’s ilk who can contribute goals from the flank. Raheem Sterling has shown outstanding promise, but isn’t yet a consistent threat or a reliable source of goals, while Rodgers has deployed a full-back, Jose Enrique, on the opposite wing.
The Reds’ Northern Irish manager could take a leaf out of his successor at Swansea Michael Laudrup’s book, who has evolved (though Rodgers might argue regressed) the Welsh side’s play, making them more direct, more attack-minded, and removing the negative possession Rodgers is so fond of.
While the Liverpool boss fascinates, obsesses even, over Liverpool’s ball retention at the expense of a more direct assault on goal and, importantly, three points, Villas-Boas has taken a more pragmatic approach, tailoring his side to suit their greatest weapon: Gareth Bale. Now the biggest task facing Spurs is holding onto him.
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