A 3-1 friendly defeat to Sunderland in China earlier today may not have been on Andre Villas-Boas' agenda for this preseason, but the Portuguese would certainly have traded defeat in that phony war provided he can win his biggest battle ahead of the new Premier League campaign.
Having picked up a knock in training, Gareth Bale was missing in Tottenham's Asia Trophy defeat to the Wearsiders, and whilst Villas-Boas continues to declare that he is counting on the Welshman in the coming campaign, those pesky rumours of a move to Real Madrid in the immediate future continue to do the rounds.
Moreover, the latest twist—reporting that Bale has agreed a six-year-deal with the Spanish club and has told Spurs he wants out, according to the Independent's Jack De Menezes—adds more credence to the opinions of those who believe the reigning Premier League Player and Young Player of the Year will be a Real Madrid man before August's end.
However, his manager would be loathe to allow Bale, scorer of 21 goals in the Premier League last season, to depart White Hart Lane, as he builds his Champions League-chasing outfit around the prodigious talents of his world-class forward. And with the forward under contract until 2016 (Transfermarkt), there is no hurry for the club to cash in on their main man.
Nor should there be any rush on the part of Bale to force a move from North London. Having turned 24 a mere eight days ago, time is very much on his side, and whilst there can be no doubting the allure of the nine-time European champions, his relationship with Villas-Boas—whose tactical nous brought greater consistency to the player's game last season—is strong and he will (should he remain) ply his trade in a side built to get the best out of him in 2013-14.
Having utilised a 4-2-3-1 for the most part last season with Bale playing between the lines behind a central striker, it appears Villas-Boas may be set to revert to the 4-3-3 formation he previously favoured at Porto.
The arrival of Brazilian midfield powerhouse Paulinho, allied to the return from injury of Sandro and the Belgian international Mousa Dembele, gives Spurs a central trio as physically dominant as any in English football. With an abundance of pace and power, and no shortage of technical ability either, they'll be more than a match for most. This will allow Bale to frequent the final third more than ever.
The exact role for Bale is one which is still to be ironed out. Whereas 18 months ago it would have been unthinkable to station him anywhere but wide left, his development into a genuine match-winner has coincided with his move away from the left flank.
His searing pace and crossing were undoubtedly a major weapon, but a position wide left somewhat boxes Bale into a corner, making it easier for opponents to double up, restricting passing lanes and—unless he greatly improves his right foot—largely taking away his greatest technical asset: his distance shooting. Additionally, it is a position in which Spurs are well stocked, with new signings Nacer Chadli, Clint Dempsey, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Lewis Holtby and Aaron Lennon all capable.
Villas-Boas has prioritised the signing of a new striker this summer, and with the club having turned its attention away from Internacional's Leandro Damiao, Valencia's Roberto Soldado is the main target.
Indeed, according to Sid Lowe of the Guardian, a deal in the region of £26 million is "not far" for the Spanish international. Neither Jermain Defoe nor Emmanuel Adebayor had glistening campaign's last season, and you don't pay that kind of figure for a substitute.
Which leaves the right-wing position from which Bale dazzled in the late season win over Manchester City—a match where Villas-Boas turned a 1-0 defeat into a 3-1 win with tactical (swapping 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3) and positional (Bale moved from the centre to the right) changes—and scored late winners in the respective home wins over Sunderland and Southampton. The victory over City was exactly what Bale offers in the right-wing role in microcosm.
Much in the vein of Bayern Munich winger Arjen Robben or Villas-Boas former charge at Porto, Hulk, it is a position that allows Bale to make the most of his gifts. His acceleration over five yards allows him to cut inside defenders with the ball at his feet to create shooting opportunities on his favoured left foot, whilst his pace over longer distances allows him to both dribble outside to the byline or make vertical runs onto diagonal passes in the space between a defensive line and their respective goalkeeper.
In all, it makes the most of Bale's match-winning qualities, offers him greater options in possession and submits to a tactical formula which should allow Villas-Boas to field his best XI in his preferred formation.
2013-14 is a massive season for Tottenham Hotspur and their manager. The nearly men of Champions League qualification in the last two seasons—albeit by default in the first of those—they must finish in the top-four or secure one of the Europa League/FA Cup next season (football's about trophies, remember).
Keeping Gareth Bale and making the most of his ability gives them their best chance to do just that.
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