When Gareth Bale first arrived at Tottenham from Southampton as a 17-year-old left back, many observers weren’t sure what to expect. The Welsh teenager had been linked with Arsenal and Manchester United, but neither side wanted to risk a sizable transfer fee on a teenage defender.
Of course, we know what happened next: The BBC had also predicted that a defender whose quickness had served him well in the Championship would likely struggle in the more physically-demanding Premier League. And they were right. Spurs famously went on a 20+ match losing streak in matches when Bale featured, with the low point perhaps coming when Bale was linked with Birmingham City in October of 2009.
Spurs had settled into a nice rhythm with Wilson Palacios and Tom Huddlestone in midfield, Aaron Lennon on the right, and Luka Modric on the left. Additionally, Niko Kranjcar and David Bentley were providing cover on the wings. Meanwhile, Benoit Assou-Ekotto had locked down the left back role, making Bale a surplus piece that could be moved.
But due to several injuries in the second half of that 09/10 campaign, Bale was given a chance to play in an advanced left midfield role. The change was exactly what he needed.
Bale’s big break
Bale’s first big match came in the second North London Derby of the 09/10 campaign with Spurs needing a win against Arsenal to stay in the hunt for fourth. And in a game more known for Danny Rose’s tenth minute volley, Bale scored a second Spurs goal off that rarest of footballing occurrences–a sublime, defense-splitting pass from Jermain Defoe. That goal turned out to be the match winner and it sparked a run that culminated in Spurs’ fourth place finish and Champions League qualification.
After that, Bale became a regular in the Spurs first XI for the remainder of the season. Even so, heading into the 10/11 campaign it was far from apparent that Spurs had a future top three talent in world football on their hands.
The first sign of Bale’s quality came in the second match of the season away at Stoke, an interesting place for Bale given it was at the Britannia where he had been sent off in the 18th minute for a bad challenge in the box in the final match of the Juande Ramos era in the 08/09 campaign.
His 2010 appearance would be far more promising. Midway through the first half Aaron Lennon made a typical jinking run along the right wing before lofting a cross into the box.
Initially the cross seemed badly off the mark–it was too far for the striker and as it came to Bale it looked as if the Welshman wouldn’t be able to do anything with it either.
But then something stunning happened. Bale brought his left foot up to chest height and hit the ball on the volley, smashing it to the far post, top corner. If you had tied a rope from Bale’s foot to the top corner and then pulled it tight, it would’ve basically given you the ball’s trajectory. It was a wonder goal and may still be the best goal Bale has scored in a Spurs shirt. But the Welshman was just beginning.
About a month after the Stoke goal, Spurs travelled to Milan to face the defending European champions, Internazionale. Inter struck first in the second minute and then in the 11th minute a through ball to Eto’o led to a red card for Gomes and just like that Spurs were down 2-0 and a man down. By halftime, the score was 4-0.
But then something unforgettable happened in the second half: Gareth Bale scored a hat trick, nearly pulling Spurs all the way back. With that, Bale had announced himself to Europe as a budding star. Two weeks later he spent 90 minutes terrorising world-class right back Maicon at White Hart Lane (and Maicon has never been the same since) and it was official: Spurs top players may have been Modric and Rafael van der Vaart, but the young Welshman was a star in the making and had the potential to exceed them all.
The tactical story – Bale under Redknapp
Where the story gets interesting tactically speaking is when we consider what happened after those two matches at Inter. At that time in his career, Bale was an orthodox left midfielder, albeit one with searing pace and a world-class left foot. The heat map from the 3-1 win over Inter tells the story:
In this match, literally every touch Bale took that wasn’t off a corner kick would come on the lefthand side of the field. Of course, it made sense to keep Bale in a strict left-sided role: Luka Modric had developed into a world-class regista able to ping passes out to Spurs’ pacey wings, which meant that Bale and Aaron Lennon never lacked service.
Additionally, Spurs had signed van der Vaart, a top class no. 10 who could link up play between the attack and midfield very well, but who needed lots of space to be at his best. So Bale operated as a left midfielder in a 4-4-1-1.
The benefits to this approach were multiple: Bale had room to run and plenty of chances to swing in devastating crosses from the left flank. Additionally, keeping Bale and Lennon on the touchlines meant van der Vaart always had the room he needed. Finally, Spurs main striker that season was Peter Crouch, one who benefitted from receiving good wide service and wasn’t nearly as effective when the attack flowed down the middle of the field.
However, there were also several problems with this approach: Bale could be marked by two men and neutralised without too much trouble because he would become isolated on the wing. Also, Spurs strikers were comically poor in front of goal that season.
Finally, when van der Vaart was out of form or in a mood, he could easily drift out of games, meaning Spurs were isolating a top player on the touchline for no good reason beyond providing space to a player not interested in performing on that day and providing service to strikers who made Emile Heskey look clinical by comparison.
For all these reasons, the 2011/12 campaign saw a slightly changed role for Bale. Spurs still played a 4-4-1-1 on paper, but Bale was often given license to roam into central areas. He became a hybrid between a second striker and a wide forward with license to move freely between a conventional left midfield position and a more central support role.
The closest equivalent in the Premier League for what Spurs were doing might be Newcastle’s tactical shift in the second half of the 11/12 campaign after the addition of Papiss Cisse. On paper, Newcastle started the game 4-4-2, but almost inevitably Hatem Ben Arfa would adopt a more advanced, tucked in position as a wide forward, forcing Demba Ba to another wide forward role and Jonas Gutierrez into midfield. This made 4-4-2 into a functional 4-3-3.
Something like that happened with Spurs when Bale moved centrally, except it was not remotely that coherent: Van der Vaart was reluctant to shift his position to accommodate Bale’s new position and Lennon was not able to shift into a central midfield area.
As a result, the shift wasn’t 4-4-1-1 to 4-3-3, as it perhaps should have been, but instead a shift from a well balanced 4-4-1-1 to an unbalanced, lopsided 4-3-2-1 in which the left side of the field was badly exposed and the central attacking area routinely congested.
The heat map below from Spurs’ 2-0 win over Norwich in December of 2011 captures the shift in Bale’s position and the average position map below captures the tactical problem this shift created.
In the second image, you can see the problems this move caused for Spurs. If you look at the formation, it’s almost a 3-4-3 with Kaboul, Sandro and Gallas as the back line, Assou-Ekotto, Modric, Parker, and Walker across the middle and Bale (3), Adebayor, and van der Vaart up top.
Defensively this setup was a major gamble. But the impact on the team’s attack was even larger: With Bale moving central and van der Vaart gravitating toward that area as well, the middle became congested. This limited Bale’s effectiveness because so much of his game depends on pace and it limited Modric and van der Vaart’s effectiveness because they suddenly didn’t have enough space.
In a team that was almost 100% dependent on pacy wide men and central creators, the move was tactically disastrous, even if Bale did occasionally come up trumps, as he did in the 2-0 victory over Norwich.
The problems this shift created played no small part in Spurs’ late season slump under Redknapp. And after Chelsea’s Champions League victory knocked 4th placed Spurs to the Europa League, Harry Redknapp was sacked and replaced by Andre Villas-Boas. AVB’s arrival would signal a new phase in Bale’s development, which will be discussed in Part II.
(photo credit #1: Getty)