Tottenham Hotspur: The Constant Tinkering of Gareth Bale's Identity
He did what Adel Taarabt, Giovani dos Santos and Kevin-Prince Boateng didn’t do—fight on in spite of adversity to become a star at White Hart Lane.
“C’mon Gareth, stop messing about with your hair,” pleaded then-Spurs manager Harry Redknapp (via James Martini at FourFourTwo.com), who had dealt with vanity in the form of Dani, an archetypal example of wasted talent.
“Bale realised he had to be tougher if he was going to make it in the Premier League and he has done that,” said Redknapp as he reflected on the Welshman persevering through hardship.
The signing of Benoit Assou-Ekotto from Lens—the club that later produced Raphael Varane and Geoffrey Kondogbia—relegated Bale, a highly touted left-back at Southampton, to bench-warming duties.
Despite hopes that he would become a Premier League ace, Bale's tenuous status as a squad player was further exacerbated by playing in 25 winless games for the club, a statistical anomaly.
With constant lapses in concentration when he was afforded an opportunity at left-back, Redknapp’s patience was growing thin as he lamented to reporters (via Tribalfootball.com): “Bale has to learn how to defend, learn how not to let people play balls inside him, learn to recover, just learn parts of his game.”
Jol: "I tried to sign Bale on loan at Hamburg. He'd played 20 games without winning but Spurs knew he was exciting" http://t.co/2WxXoHLXI9— FourFourTwo (@FourFourTwo) March 15, 2013
Bale's valuation improved slightly over three years then... pic.twitter.com/BS7neDqC5G— Gab Stone (@GabStone9) February 25, 2013
“I'm not looking for a left-back because you won’t get a better one than Gareth Bale,” Redknapp later told the press (via The Belfast Telegraph) when queried on the possibility of the Welshman leaving.
Even after demolishing Inter Milan, cue the taxi for Maicon chants, Redknapp stuck to his gut instinct, telling reporters (via Rob Shepherd at The National): “In the long-term I eventually see Gareth dropping back and playing at left-back where he can be one of the best, if not the best.”
Gareth Bale is ripping Maicon to shreds on the #Spurs left. Imagine writing those words last January— Oliver Kay (@OliverKayTimes) November 2, 2010
Redknapp was a friend of Peter Knowles, whose brother, Cyril, was one of Spurs’ greatest ever players. From TottenhamHotspur.com's profile of the Englishman:
Everyone knows the phrase ‘Nice One Cyril’—renowned after the pop record—and every Spurs fan knows that Cyril Knowles is one of the best left-backs to grace White Hart Lane.
Knowles soon developed the style of the overlapping full-back, using all his natural ability from his days as a winger to great effect.
Maybe, Redknapp envisioned Bale being a modern-day Cyril Knowles.
Either way, the idea of Bale being a world-class left-back wasn’t just exclusive to Redknapp.
“I remember coming back from scouting him and thinking ‘I've seen the new Paolo Maldini’,” recalled former Spurs director of football Damien Comolli to David Ornstein at BBC Sport.
Dani Alves, the poster boy for de-facto wide forwards masquerading as full-backs, explained his reasoning for starting Bale at left-back in an interview with Sid Lowe at The Guardian:
In my team he’d always be a full-back. People get scared and play attacking full-backs as wingers. They think they will attack more, but often they attack less and less well.
It happened with Roberto Carlos: as a winger, he was less effective, he needs to start his run sooner.
Bale is more skilful and good as a winger, but at Barcelona he would be a full-back.
Bale’s sudden rise from struggling left-back to world-class winger perpetuated the misconception that Redknapp, never one to shy away from tooting his own horn, always wanted to change the Welshman into a winger from the get-go, when that wasn’t the case.
In fact, Martin Jol, who managed Tottenham from 2004-07, was closer to being correct with his initial analysis of Bale’s best position than Redknapp according to quotes given to ESPN FC: “He can play as a wide player but Bale’s best position would be as a wing-back in a 3-5-2, what he does with Wales, but we play 4-4-2.”
“Was he a left-back or a winger?” pondered former teammate Ledley King, according to an interview with The Daily Mail.
“He’s turned into a player who is very similar to Cristiano Ronaldo when he was at Manchester United in the way he progressed and started picking up the ball in central positions and scoring goals,” observed King.
The manager that deserves to receive the most credit for Bale’s transformation is Andre Villas-Boas.
“Bale is extremely comfortable playing as a striker and the more he plays there the more he is likely to help the team,” Villas-Boas told reporters (via Darren Lewis at The Mirror).
Demanding Bale to be Spurs’ deep-lying forward with the ability to roam (talk about a bold tactical move) has Villas-Boas stamped all over it.
When Sir Alex Ferguson afforded Ronaldo more freedom, the Portuguese forward’s goal tally spiked from 26 to 42.
For Real Madrid, he’s now scored 50-plus goals or more in three successive seasons.
By transitioning so quickly from an assist-first mentality to a shoot-first approach, something Villas-Boas encourages, it’s understandable why Bale’s shots per league goal is a wasteful 7.8, compared to Ronaldo’s 6.9 (inefficient) and Lionel Messi’s 3.5 (what Bale should aspire to).
If Bale stays with Spurs instead of moving to Real Madrid, a scenario his agent has alluded to, the Welshman will be given the best platform to state his case as an alternative for the FIFA Ballon d'Or.
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