Gareth Bale the sensation who owes it all to Tottenham's compact style | Jonathan Wil

Jonathan Wilson

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Aug 1, 2010
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André Villas-Boas has changed Spurs' shape and the system has allowed the winger to take flight with startling results
Gareth Bale is playing brilliantly. He is quick and powerful, technically gifted and can strike the ball ferociously with his left foot. He self-consciously models himself on Cristiano Ronaldo and in terms of his drive for self-improvement and even his style of play, cutting in from the left flank, there is validity to comparisons between them.
He is in a rare seam of form. It is entirely possible he may never play as well as this again. Jermain Defoe is injured, Emmanuel Adebayor was away at the Africa Cup of Nations and has struggled since his return and Tottenham have no other strikers, and yet it has not mattered because of Bale's excellence.
Predictably, that has led to claims that Tottenham are a one-man team, as though his brilliance was inevitable and not linked to those around him. There seems to be a belief that individual brilliance undermines the whole notion of a systemic approach to football.
It is possible that one superb player playing superbly can outweigh shambolic organisation. But far more likely, and far more common, is that individual and system work together, that the system provides the environment in which an individual can thrive and the individual, in doing so, elevates the whole.
André Villas-Boas is clearly grateful to Bale but the way Bale charged to celebrate with Villas-Boas after scoring the winner in the 3-2 victory at West Ham on Monday suggests he is aware how much he owes to his manager.
Think back to the first three games of Tottenham's season, when they lost at Newcastle and drew against West Bromwich Albion and Norwich City. Bale played in all three games and, while no worse than anyone else, was ineffective. When he got the ball, he tended to be too deep or isolated, easy to crowd out because there was no option for a pass. Perhaps if you took the Bale of now and transplanted him to that side, he could still conjure a goal from nowhere, but form tends not to work like that; his purple patch is the result of accumulating confidence that stems from and enhances an efficient system.
It has taken time – these things do – but Tottenham's shape has changed. Although Villas-Boas had a brief dabble with 4-4-2, the formation remains 4-2-3-1, but Spurs are far more compact now than they were. The defence plays higher, which means the midfield lines can shuffle up and that means the spaces between players diminish. Bale is closer to his forward, closer to the attacking central midfielder, closer to the left-sided holder and closer to the full-back; there are passing options which, even if not used, at least exercise defenders.
Take the last-minute winner against West Ham. Bale began a charge and was bundled off the ball as he laid it outside to Gylfi Sigurdsson who had moved left as Bale surged through the centre. Sigurdsson knocked a pass inside to Tom Carroll by which time Bale had got back to his feet and Sigurdsson had made a run that created a fraction of space. It took an extraordinary strike to score but the key thing was that Bale had two players within 10-15 yards of him, as well as Adebayor pulling away to the right. You do not have to share Valeriy Lobanovskyi's conviction that the coalitions between players are more important than the players themselves to appreciate that others contributed before the majestic execution.
So why are Tottenham more compact than they were five months ago? Why does the defence feel able to push higher? In part that is down to confidence and to Villas-Boas's training. But it is also down to the change of goalkeeper. Brad Friedel remains a very fine keeper but he is part of the reactive school of US keeping that tends to stay deep. There is nothing wrong with that – it is a perfectly legitimate way to play – but it does have ramifications elsewhere on the pitch.
If a team want to play with a high line they need a keeper who is comfortable coming off his line, sweeping up behind the defence, making sure the space behind an advanced back four is not a yawning void into which opponents can play through balls. Hugo Lloris is much more adept than Friedel at that, and since he has become the regular No1, Spurs have played much higher and been much more compact. That has got the best out of Bale. (It's also worked defensively; no team in the Premier League concede as few shots on goal as Tottenham).
There has been much debate as to whether Bale is better continuing as a winger or moving inside. It may be that he does end up as a central player, whether as an attacking midfielder or a false nine, but there is no reason at the moment why he should not carry on what he is doing, drifting in from the left into goalscoring positions.
There seems to be an idea that wingers are somehow peripheral both literally and in terms of their influence over a game, and perhaps that was once true. Even in the late 70s, though, John Robertson was able to run games from a position on the left and Ronaldo shows how that can work in the modern game. As Sir Alex Ferguson has noted, there is often more space to be found attacking from wide on a diagonal than starting through the middle.
Barcelona and Real Madrid are reported to be interested in Bale and if Ronaldo were to leave it is easy to see why Real would regard him as being as close to a like-for-like replacement as possible. Then again, it may be that the muscularity of his style would add something missing from the mix at Barcelona.
But for now, Bale has found a club playing in a way that gets the best out of him, and the value of that should not be underestimated.
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