For a brief but significant moment during his post-match press conference following Tottenham’s 1-0 win at West Brom on Sunday, Andre Villas-Boas acknowledged Gareth Bale’s impact in a central role.
The Spurs manager confirmed he had deliberately set up his team with Clint Dempsey in Bale’s usual left-sided berth, giving the Welshman freedom behind Jermain Defoe.
Although the game see-sawed; first with the injury to Defoe and then Goran Popov’s deserved sending off (West Brom manager Steve Clarke later demanded an apology from his moronic defender); through the tactical tilt something became evident.
Despite our pleasure watching Bale’s gradual erosion of a right-back’s sense of purpose, his ability to inflict instant, irreparable damage from the centre is far more valuable to Villas-Boas.
Bale’s strike against West Brom showed as much, abusing 5 yards of space outside the penalty area to kill the game. He has largely been positioned on the left under Villas-Boas so far this season, fulfilling a responsibility to defend deep in Spurs’ half at times.
But Bale’s match-winning contributions have typically come as he hasslowly drifted away from his station like an impatient kid, including all three goals that comprised the second-half hat-trick that beat Aston Villa on Boxing Day, and a brilliant solo finish at Old Trafford earlier this season.
Bale shares many attributes with someone who has made match-winning habitual.
Both he and Cristiano Ronaldo embody the model of a modern professional footballer. They represent the complete attacking player – dedicated athletes that are both physically and technically outstanding.
At around 23 years old, Sir Alex Ferguson recognised where Ronaldo’s influence was greatest – an iconic Ronaldo performance, when United beat Arsenal at The Emirates in the Champions League semi-final, was one of the first occasions the Portuguese had been deployed as a central striker.
The tricky wide midfielder transformed into a devastating forward as Ferguson removed the very defensive shackles from Ronaldo that suppress Bale’s talent.
Today is Ronaldo’s 28th birthday and he can already reflect on a remarkable career, including 133 goals in 122 Real Madrid appearances. At 23, Bale is reaching a decisive stage where he will cement the role, and club, to deliver his peak years.
In a recent list by The Guardian of the world’s best footballers, Gareth Bale was placed number 40 – Cristiano Ronaldo, of course, was second.
To make up the gap Bale must take centre stage and if Villas-Boas doesn’t continue to offer him the freedom he requires to flourish, another club surely will.
image: © andybrannan