In Part I we discussed Gareth Bale’s early development at Spurs. Now for Part II, Bale under Andre Villas Boas…
Bale under AVB
Andre Villas-Boas was faced with a dilemma when he arrived last summer. If he played Bale wide, he could be marked out of games. On the other hand, if he moved him centrally, it completely broke Spurs’ tactical shape.
The way Villas-Boas ended up solving the problem shows both his ingenuity as a manager and the difficulty that top-class players can create for a team tactically. It’s a difficulty you’re happy to have because you’re better off with a world-class player, of course, but it does create problems.
The biggest change that happened off the bat was Villas-Boas’ complete reshuffling of the first XI. Part of that was forced by Luka Modric’s departure for Real Madrid. But rather than simply trying to bring in a new passer and stay with the 4-4-1-1, Villas-Boas doubled down on the shift, selling Spurs’ other top creative talent Rafael van der Vaart and replacing his two departed creators with Fulham’s Moussa Dembele and Clint Dempsey. (Spurs also added Gylfi Sigurdsson from Hoffenheim in the window.)
Spurs shifted into a far more direct 4-2-3-1 in which Bale and Lennon were slightly tucked in on the wings, Dempsey played in the hole behind Defoe, and Dembele and Sandro operated as a double pivot in midfield.
Gone were the diagonal balls from Modric and the clever movement and guile of van der Vaart. They were replaced by the poaching of Defoe and Dempsey and the surprisingly graceful dribbling of Dembele.
The one constant from the Redknapp era was the attack’s dependence on pace along the edge in the form of Lennon and Bale. The heat map below shows Bale’s average position in an early-season match (the 3-2 win over Manchester United) that used this setup:
While he did get around the field a bit more than in his early days as a strict left wing, Bale’s positioning (Spurs are attacking right-to-left in the graphic above) is still far more disciplined than in the Norwich match shown in Part I. (The lack of touches in the attacking third largely reflects the fact that Spurs spent most of the final 40 minutes absorbing an incredible amount of attacking moves from the Red Devils.)
Once again, however, this approached proved problematic. It turned out Spurs missed van der Vaart more than Modric. The double pivot of Sandro and Dembele had been a resounding success in midfield, but Dempsey was not nearly as effective linking the midfield and attack, nor did he support the striker as effectively as van der Vaart had.
To be fair, the problem wasn’t necessarily Dempsey’s fault. The American is a poacher, not a number ten. Taken by itself, that isn’t necessarily a problem. Where Tottenham ran into trouble is that Jermain Defoe is a poacher as well and not a number nine. And while you can get away with playing one poacher, it’s almost impossible to get away with playing two.
(Think about how much more effective Javier Hernandez is playing alongside Robin van Persie or Wayne Rooney than he is when leading the line for the Mexican national team.)
Consequently, Spurs began to shift away from the 4-2-3-1 with Dempsey in the hole and began experimenting with a 4-4-2 with Defoe and Adebayor partnering up top. Their lack of chemistry made this approach an abject failure, but it did produce one good result: the utter lack of cohesion from the strikers forced Bale to move inside in order to get more scoring chances for himself.
And as there was no longer a rival number ten in the same position, Bale found a lot of space in the middle. Eventually AVB dropped the 4-4-2 and simply moved Bale into the hole and played Sigurdsson in Bale’s old spot on the left.
But the important change wasn’t so much who else was in the front four attacking players with Bale, Defoe, and Lennon–be it Dempsey, Adebayor, or Sigurdsson.
It was moving Bale centrally.
This unleashed a run of goal-scoring form that was stunning even to those of us who had followed Bale’s career closely. And the match where the change became official was the Boxing Day drubbing of Aston Villa in which Bale recorded his first Premier League hat trick. He favoured the left side in this match, but it was a tucked in role on the left side that evolved into a central role:
After this game, Bale stayed in a central role for the next three months or so, basically scoring when he wanted and guiding Spurs to a fine run of form.
Of course, looking back the improvement doesn’t seem as surprising as it did back in January. Bale is a physical specimen with a striking resemblance to Ronaldo–around 6’2, about 180 pounds of solid muscle, with Olympic sprinter pace and the best left foot in the world. When you have a player like that, the best thing to do with him is tell him to run wherever he likes and then cackle maniacally as you tell your opponent to have fun trying to stop him.
Why Bale in the hole doesn’t work (at Spurs)
Despite his obvious success in that role, this isn’t where Bale would end the season. There would be one final move for the Welshman. The only real problem with Bale in the hole as a support striker is that it didn’t really fit with the way AVB wants his teams to play.
AVB’s preferred 4-3-3 has no room for a support striker in that advanced central position. The reason it doesn’t is that they need three midfielders in order to dominate midfield, press the opposition every time they get the ball, and then get the ball going vertical to their attacking players. Recall, for example, that Dempsey’s move to Spurs only happened after a deadline day deal for Joao Moutinho fell through.
AVB’s preferred shape was always 4-3-3 with Moutinho joining Dembele and Sandro in midfield and Bale and Lennon flanking a striker. It was only the obnoxious complications of third party ownership with Moutinho that kept this from happening. So Bale in the hole was AVB’s way of making the best out of a non-ideal situation.
Bale the inverted winger
But as the season progressed, a solution began to present itself. Teams began swarming Bale in the centre, forcing him into a wide role simply so he could have space to receive the ball. His shift wide wasn’t to his old left wing position however, but to the right, where he played as an inverted winger.
Soon, Bale had not only developed a dead ringer of an Arjen Robben impression – receiving the ball on his right, cutting in and hitting it with his left – he’d actually improved upon Robben’s technique by becoming more consistent with it than the on-again-off-again Dutchman.
Using that technique Bale scored goals against West Brom, Southampton, and Sunderland and nearly scored against Newcastle. (You know he’s perfected it when you’re watching him on the right and just hoping the defender is dumb enough to show him inside, as against Sunderland on the last day of last season. As soon as he cut inside I knew he’d score. I wasn’t even surprised.)
Bale also scored his goal against Manchester City from the right, running in behind City’s line and picking up Tom Huddlestone’s through ball.
The map below shows Bale’s shift to the right against Man City. The chart is a bit distorted because it initially appears that Bale had played a free role the full 90 minutes. What actually happened is Bale started out on the left or in the hole and moved right around the hour mark. So the touches on the left side are almost entirely from the first hour, the right side touches are from the last 30-40 minutes. And note that Bale was getting more touches on the right in about 35 minutes of work there than he did in 55 minutes on the left.
Hypothetically should Bale stay at Spurs, this is the position I expect him to play next season. Spurs will use a 4-3-3 with Bale running the right channel as a wide forward in a role very similar to the one played by Hulk with AVB’s Porto and Daniel Sturridge at AVB’s Chelsea.
With Bale and another lethal forward running the opposite channel and a midfield trio of Paulinho, Sandro, and Dembele, Spurs should be able to play the kind of vertical, pressing style that AVB prefers but hasn’t been able to implement since leaving Portugal.
Although speculation on transfers (especially with a club like Tottenham) is almost pointless, one possibility is that of having Nacer Chadli on the left and Christian Benteke in the middle with Bale on the right. Obviously that’s an extremely ambitious approach, but even adding one of those players alongside Spurs’ current players in the unfilled role would be an improvement worth making.
As Manchester City learned late in the season, when this approach is working, it’s a nightmare to stop. In fact, that’s not just a lesson teams learn when they face AVB. Anyone who faced this year’s Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich learned all about what a nightmare it can be to play a team that packs the midfield, presses the ball, and attacks vertically with pace.
Of course, should Bale depart for Real Madrid, he has already proven that he can play effectively in a more central or free role. Should Madrid sign him, I expect he’ll be deployed in a 4-2-3-1 with Ronaldo and either Isco, Ozil, or his former Spurs teammate Modric with all three supporting Benzema (or perhaps Luis Suarez).
If he does that, then Ronaldo, Ancelotti’s preferred number ten, and Bale would all likely have freedom to drift into and out of position as they saw fit. With Xabi Alonso or Modric providing service from deep, Real Madrid could create a total football attacking force that would be almost impossible to effectively contain.
They’d be able to play their vintage counter attacking style with the long passing of Modric and pace of Bale and Ronaldo or they could maintain possession, build up the attack, and grind out goals through the superior ability of their attacking players.
That said, all evidence points to Bale staying in North London. If that happens, Spurs will enter the season with a right-sided forward who is essentially a combination of Theo Walcott and Arjen Robben. Spurs have other question marks (most notably at left forward, striker, and left back), but when you have a player of Bale’s calibre it can help cover a multitude of other shortcomings.