It seems a little crazy to say, but Gareth Bale is giving Andre Villas-Boas something of a headache right now. The Tottenham Hotspur star's good recent form has come amidst uncertainty as to just what his best position is.
At first glance there would appear to be little issue. Bale has scored in each of his last four league appearances.
Considering three of those four goals have played their part in Tottenham wins, it has shown the Welshman's capacity to affect games—even when he has not necessarily had a consistent influence over 90 minutes.
Spurs' match with Southampton underlined the battle between the individual's and the team's needs (which are obviously entwined) Villas-Boas is facing right now.
Bale was shuffled across the pitch in search of freedom from the unrelenting Saints. During one game, he occupied the three positions he has primarily played in this season.
The final move to right wing was where he has enjoyed his most recent success. Bale's goals against Manchester City and Wigan Athletic stemmed from his positioning here, as did this match-winner against Southampton. This though, was the most impressive example of the threat he poses when able to cut in onto his left-foot.
Against Southampton and Man City, this late-game adjustment finally saw Bale free himself from the constraints of tiring defenses—his superior speed and stamina taking advantage of their weariness.
Starting from wide-right was a different story, though. He did so against Wigan, and save for his goal (a somewhat fortunate testament to the virtues of pressuring goalkeepers) was largely quiet on his weaker side.
If playing Bale on the right flank is one way of utilizing the prowess of that devastating left foot, capitalizing on his game as a whole has proved trickier.
At least in terms of goals, Bale has been most effective when playing in a central position.
From early-February's 1-0 win over West Bromwich Albion (one of his best displays centrally), up until the second-half of the City victory, that was where he was deployed—veering between playing in the "hole" behind a solitary striker, or as a de facto second forward himself.
Bale scored 10 times for Spurs in that period, all of them contributing to wins. It is hard to argue against it being a good thing, then. But he was not always that involved, and it did have repercussions elsewhere in the team.
Without Bale playing left-wing (where he had mostly played until February), Tottenham did miss the pace and penetration he provided down that side. These attributes were now being deployed in the middle though, and the deputizing Gylfi Sigurdsson was working hard to compensate in Bale's place in a position that was not his best (and he did OK too, especially in the North London derby).
As powerful a weapon as Bale could be here, he was sometimes just as easily confined by the limited space to yield his threat. Where West Ham United gave him plenty of time to run at them (and he scored twice doing so), Olympique Lyonnais were less generous, and it was only at set-pieces he was able to have an impact.
In games like the Liverpool loss, Bale struggled to work his magic, as ironically without him (and in that game, the injured Aaron Lennon) quickly getting forward down the wings, he often lacked support. Versus Swansea, his second-half return to the left-wing was a reminder of what he offered getting up and down that flank—both as an offensive outlet, and a defensive contributor (where he made a crucial win-saving block).
Another unintended consequence of Bale's central move was, in his absence, Spurs had lost any real sense of an attacking identity. The likes of Sigurdsson, Clint Dempsey and Lewis Holtby had been moved around him, and now without the 23-year-old as the team's focal point, they were a little directionless (the trips to Internazionale and Basel best summed this up).
Part of the trouble since Bale returned to fitness in late April is the changes Spurs have undergone in recent months (both tactically, and in personnel situations forced by injury and form), have left Villas-Boas unsure as to what his best side is right now.
Spurs have (among other things) moved between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, alternated Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor upfront, and have seen their midfield undergo transformations as everyone from Tom Huddlestone to Tom Carroll has been experimented with.
Finding the best role for Bale at this point remains a significant part of that search for a successful and cohesive lineup that will see Spurs finish the season strongly. Villas-Boas will be hoping these final games of 2012-13 are not the last time he is taking into consideration how to best use his highly-rated prize asset.
Though it might not be a simple process, fitting the Premier League's player of the year into a team is no hardship.