When Gareth Bale made his Tottenham Hotspur debut in a 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford, it was easy to see why he’d gained a reputation as one of the most promising young footballers in the country. An all-action, dynamic performance made him an instant favourite with Spurs fans; a relationship that has matured and grown into complete adulation in the years hence. He demonstrated remarkable pace and stamina in his regular forays down the left flank, but was clearly lacking in positional sense defensively and needed to grow into his young body. Yet he retained his place in the side, scoring an impressive three goals in four starts, until a dangerous challenge from Birmingham’s Fabrice Muamba led to him leaving White Hart Lane on crutches. It would be a long time until he graced the famous old stadium again.
The initial injury and a number of setbacks curtailed his return to the side for a period of around seven months. Martin Jol, the manager that brought him to the club, was sacked and replaced by Juande “two points from eight games” Ramos. The Spaniard brought the fit-again Bale back into the side at the start of the 2008/9, but the injury problems, awful performance of the side and the growing ‘curse’ - he eventually made 24 league appearances for Spurs before finally finishing on the winning side - weighed heavily on his mind and he subsequently struggled for form. Even after Ramos was canned, he struggled to convince ‘Arry that he was worth a place in the side. But in Jan 2010, with Benoit Assou-Ekotto injured for a month, he finally got a chance to re-stake his claim for a first-team berth and it was a chance he took as ruthlessly as the majority he’s been presented with since.
He started on the left wing four days later against Chelsea, scored the winner again and tortured first Paulo Ferreira then Branislav Ivanovic
Two assists from left back in an FA Cup game against Peterborough suggested there was life in the young dog yet and he embarked on an impressive run of form that demonstrated the immense talent he’d hinted at in his first few appearances for the club. Now though, he was 6’2” with a physique to match; he began to display the barnstorming eruptions down the left flank with which he would soon become synonymous. He began to build a reputation as one of the most explosive left backs in the division, but his future lay elsewhere and he demonstrated where it was in the space of less than a week. He was shifted forward to left midfield at half time of the North London Derby when surprise starter Danny Rose was forced off through injury, taking less than ten minutes to score what would be the winning goal. He started on the left wing four days later against Chelsea, scored the winner again and tortured first Paulo Ferreira then Branislav Ivanovic. A star was born and he went from strength to strength in the following year; the performances against Inter Milan, scoring 11 goals by New Year’s Day and ultimately winning the PFA Player of the Year award were all high points in his first full season in midfield. This year he has been even better.
So how did he go from second choice left back at Spurs to the best winger in the world? One of the primary reasons must be the influence of his managers. While it took Harry Redknapp a long, long time to incorporate Bale into the side, it should not be underestimated what an impact he has had on the new Welsh Wizard; not least that he had the foresight to see that Gareth had all the makings of a world-class winger. While his attacking tendencies were always on display, neither I nor any other Spurs fan I ever spoke to ever saw him as anything other than a Roberto Carlos-esque left back; rampaging up and down the flank, whipping in dangerous crosses and scoring the odd free kick. Even Jose Mourinho was once quoted as saying that he could be a better left back than Ashley Cole. Well yes he could, but only Harry – and maybe Bale himself - saw that he could be so much more than that. Playing him in a more attacking role immediately paid off as the young Welshman began to pop up in dangerous attacking areas all over the pitch, and his goal tally increased exponentially as a result.
Credit must also go to the late - and sadly missed - Gary Speed, who played Bale on the right flank of his Wales side
Credit must also go to the late - and sadly missed - Gary Speed, who played Bale on the right flank of his Wales side. Playing in a different attacking position began to add an extra string to Bale’s bow and Redknapp encouraged the development; the ability to cause problems from both sides of the pitch immediately negated opposition tactics of doubling up on him. In October 2010, Everton’s Phil Neville and John Heitinga kept Bale deadly quiet in the 1-1 draw at WHL; a year later, Bale created both goals as Spurs beat Aston Villa 2-0 at WHL despite Carlos Cuellar playing at right back and Alan Hutton featuring on right midfield in a shamelessly-negative attempt to stifle him. The differences in the two performances was easily apparent; Everton neutralised him by pressuring him immediately and cutting off the channel that he liked to attack, but when Villa tried to do this he merely switched wings with Lennon or began to maraud through the middle instead. Furthermore, the free-form 4-2-3-1 formation that Spurs lined up in at Norwich on Tuesday basically allowed Bale a free role and it was one he relished; most of the damage he caused, including his two goals, came from him playing through the middle of the pitch. The unpredictability he now carries and the freedom he and his teammates are allowed by Redknapp are a large part of why he, and they, have been so effective this season.
And his teammates themselves also deserve a share of the credit. Being around top-class players can only ever be beneficial for a young player, and there are few clubs with more top-class players than Spurs these days. Luka Modric may be the best of them and there can be no disputing that his ability to open up space on even the most-congested pitch and then unerringly find the teammate that can make the best use of it has benefited Bale hugely; the second goal at Norwich is a perfect example. Rafael van der Vaart has the guile, craft and natural talent to do the same but does so further up the pitch, making him more likely to find Bale in the penalty box than on the run. The presence of either Scott Parker, Sandro or both, anchoring the midfield frees him up to spend more time in the attacking third and pressing higher up the pitch than he did last season; which makes it more likely that he is already in position to immediately receive the ball from Modric and van der Vaart or capitalise on mistakes made by the opposition. Benny Assou-Ekotto is also worth a mention; there is an instinctive partnership between the two and the Cameroonian possesses a delicious raking ball down the channel that has found his compatriot haring into space on many an occasion.
It is a well-documented fact that Bale doesn’t drink - not even the numerous bottles of champagne he receives for man-of-the-match performances
Probably the main reason he has developed so rapidly though is the ever-increasing belief and self-confidence he possesses. Bale’s first couple of spells in the side were marked by a distinct tentativeness at times, especially after opponents had gone in hard to rough him up a bit. There is no sign of that these days, and rightly so. The first big step was clearly scoring the goals against Arsenal and Chelsea that not only gained an invaluable four points, but secured the bragging rights that every Spurs fan is desperate to acquire. This was built on the following season by the 3-2 victory at The Emirates, Bale clinically scoring the goal that sparked the comeback from 2-0 at half-time, the Champions League campaign and his personal PFA accolade. The responsibility of being the star player for his national side has also helped him to mature quickly. In addition, the entire Spurs side have begun to develop a winning mentality over the last eighteen months – and in no small part due to Rafa van der Vaart, a man who got used to winning every week at both Ajax and Real Madrid and hated not doing so – that has been furthered by the leadership of both Scott Parker and Ledley King this season; the entire side carry themselves taller than they used to. This combination of unwavering self-belief and a burning desire to win have filled Bale with the confidence to repeatedly take on any number of men, attempt difficult first-time crosses and continue shooting even after he’s missed numerous chances. Put succinctly, Bale now looks like a man who belongs at the very top of the game.
And the final reason is the man himself. No professional footballer ever makes it to the top in this era without an unwavering professionalism and sheer hard work. It is a well-documented fact that Bale doesn’t drink - not even the numerous bottles of champagne he receives for man-of-the-match performances – and Harry Redknapp has repeatedly praised him for his work rate and desire to better himself. Certain footballers have already ruined, or are in the process of ruining, the careers by adopting the playboy lifestyle (Andy Carroll and David Bentley are reputedly the most recent examples) but Bale has never been in danger of doing so.
The only real question left is, considering he’s still only 22, how good could he get? While Redknapp has recently suggested that he possesses no weaknesses, this isn’t yet true. He certainly doesn’t enjoy the plethora of late, cynical challenges he receives as one of the star names in the league and his injury record is still chequered. His decision-making is largely good but could be improved upon, and the same could be said of his finishing. Another challenge is to keep up the level of performance and consistency he has demonstrated thus far for the entire season, and then to do so season after season from then on. But if he continues to develop at the exponential rate that he has over the last two years, the tentative comparisons with Messi and Ronaldo that are currently being made in jest may not be so funny in the near future.
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