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How Gareth Bale's Changing Role Has Made Him Real Madrid's Most Complete Forward

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistSeptember 5, 2016

SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN - AUGUST 21:  Gareth Bale of Real Madrid celebrates after scoring goal during the La Liga match between Real Sociedad de Futbol and Real Madrid at Estadio Anoeta on August 21, 2016 in San Sebastian, Spain.  (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

So far, 2016 has been pretty incredible for Gareth Bale: He re-established himself as a critical piece of the Real Madrid team under Zinedine Zidane, won the UEFA Champions League, played a key role for Wales at Euro 2016 and has started the new campaign in great form for his side.

Having had to prove himself to those in Madrid—both inside and outside the club—after a world-record, £85.3 million move from Tottenham Hotspur in 2013, Bale's importance to the side is no longer doubted by anybody after tremendous improvements in consistency, reliability and his willingness to shoulder responsibility for the team.

While comparisons to both team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo and rival Neymar will inevitably continue as some look to establish a firm order of merit rather than appreciating the need for different types of players within teams and leagues, there can be little doubt Bale has emerged from his time at Real Madrid as the most complete and well-rounded forward at Zidane's disposal.

    

Early Days

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Despite shining at Spurs as first a left winger and then, in his final season or two, as a central attacking threat behind a striker, Bale was immediately entrusted to the right side of Real's attack after moving to the Santiago Bernabeu.

While it now seems second nature to him to play from that flank, there was a time when Spurs fans would sing "Gareth Bale, he plays on the left," as that is where his dominant performances came from and they felt the team suffered when he was moved away from that side of the pitch.

Early on in Bale's Madrid career, he did look out of sorts and unsure of himself on the right, as he adapted not only to a new position but also new team-mates and a new league.

His role was a straightforward one: an inside forward, driving in off the right to get shots away whenever possible and an outlet down the wing to support counter-attacks.

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It was a mirror image of Ronaldo's left-sided role to a large extent, and then-manager Carlo Ancelotti didn't complicate matters much; with plenty of power and drive from central midfielders Angel Di Maria and Luka Modric, Real Madrid didn't need anybody else to be a threat through the middle. Instead, it was left to the wide forwards to simply destroy teams in the channels and behind defences.

Despite that up-and-down season in terms of media criticism and adaptation, Bale still netted one goal every other game on average, including one in the UEFA Champions League final.

    

Into Attack

Ancelotti's final season at the helm, 2014/15, still saw Bale play from the right side in a 4-3-3 attack but also saw another development in his tactical armoury: playing as a centre-forward in a 4-4-2.

While Bale had played behind a striker at Spurs, being one of two strikers was entirely new, and the astute Ancelotti saw how the Welshman's speed and power could be of massive benefit to Los Blancos, especially when the tactic was used late in matches that Madrid were already winning.

Often paired with Ronaldo in that system, the No. 7 and No. 11 could simply rip teams to shreds by providing an outlet from deep. One simple ball into the channels or over the top, and suddenly a narrow lead could be doubled or trebled in double-quick time.

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Despite not always being a crowd favourite—Isco and James Rodriguez were at times irresistible that season, especially in that 4-4-2 shape—Bale certainly grew as a player with the competition for places and his increased appreciation of how to use space.

It wasn't his most productive campaign in terms of goalscoring—he noted 17 times in all competitions—but silverware was won, and the development of Bale's game has proved incredibly important in the 16 months since the end of this particular campaign.

    

Central Threat

Out went Ancelotti. In came Rafa Benitez. Soon, Rafa was also to depart, but his first move as Madrid boss was to revert to 4-2-3-1 and make Gareth Bale the centrepiece of the triumvirate behind the striker, with Ronaldo wide left and James or Isco battling for the spot on the right.

Naturally, the decision was questioned, as it was a departure from where Bale had mostly played in white. But it was far from a new role; operating as the No. 10 was exactly how the Welshman had impressed at Tottenham before signing for Madrid.

Benitez's motives were clear: Bale had the physicality to drive forward from deep and exploit gaps in the middle of the pitch, while also being workmanlike enough to drop back into midfield out of possession.

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It could have been an exciting and thoroughly successful period for Bale, but it was over too soon; injuries to himself and James coincided with a campaign to oust Benitez from his position, which duly occurred after a run of one defeat in nine games and less than two weeks after a 10-2 win over Rayo Vallecano, during which Bale scored four times.

    

All-in-One

Zidane was installed as manager in January, and since then, it has been back to the right flank for Bale. But he has been liberated by the move. The Frenchman's best decision as Real Madrid manager so far has been to allow Bale not just the freedom of where to make his runs but to entrust him with responsibility for leading the entire attack when needed.

Bale's form at the back end of 2015/16 was impeccable, as all the parts of his game, built up over the past few seasons at the club, came together.

His runs from deep are dynamic and, at times, unstoppable.

SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN - APRIL 30:  Gareth Bale of Real Madrid duels for the ball with Markel Bergara of Real Sociedad during the La Liga match between Real Sociedad de Futbol and Real Madrid at Estadio Anoeta on April 30, 2016 in San Sebastian, Spain.  (Ph
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He is comfortable leading the line and being the furthest forward player in the box, and he has the aerial prowess to back up taking those positions.

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Wing play remains a blend of forceful running, direct dribbling toward goal—but also the intelligence and selflessness to link with team-mates and track back to help out the defence whenever required.

Zidane isn't building his side around Bale, but he has absolutely found a way to incorporate his best traits into a structure that works for the team, gives the attack freedom and allows the most expressive players to show why they are regarded as the game's top talents.

That includes Bale, who has improved his consistency, his tactical understanding of movement and his ability to produce in the final third when it matters most—but perhaps most of all, he should be applauded for his capacity to learn and take on aspects to his game.

Now into his fourth season in the Spanish capital, well established as a first-teamer and set to sign a new contract, per Neil Fissler of the Sunday Express, no player in Real Madrid's front line can boast as well-rounded a set of attributes as Bale.

And so varied are his traits and talents that he will only prove ever more difficult for defences to tame in 2016/17 and beyond.

    

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