Tottenham 2-1 Newcastle: all about Gareth Bale

February 10, 2013

The starting line-ups

Gareth Bale scored twice in a match that started slowly, but turned into an exciting contest.

Andre Villas-Boas handed a first start to Lewis Holtby – Jermain Defoe was injured, so Clint Dempsey played upfront.

Alan Pardew named an unchanged XI from the side that beat Chelsea 3-2 last weekend.

This was a relatively unexciting game tactically, but Bale’s half-time switch in position was very interesting.

Bale quality

With the sheer hyperbole surrounding Gareth Bale in recent weeks, it’s sometimes difficult to gauge his actual level of ability. This game was an interesting demonstration of his skillset, and while Bale isn’t quite challenging Lionel Messi for the status of Europe’s best player, it’s clear that the Welshman has reached a level where the entire tactical battle within a game revolves around him.

In basic terms, this wasn’t necessarily a match suited to his strengths. Nine of Bale’s eleven league goals before this match had came away from home, which may be a simple statistical quirk, but it tallies with stylistic and tactical factors. Bale’s best when attacking directly on the break, and therefore likes playing against an opposition that comes forward, leaving spaces at the back. (It’s fascinating that Ryan Giggs, the player Bale is most frequently compared to, for reasons of position and nationality, is the only one of the Premier League’s top 100 goalscorers to have scored more away goals than at home). At White Hart Lane, with a bottom-half side that generally sit deep on their travels, Bale’s space was likely to be restricted.

Wide left

There had been speculation Bale would be used as a forward – after a central role last weekend at West Bromwich Albion (and since Spurs were without Defoe, and Emmanuel Adebayor was only on the bench) there was a chance Bale, rather than Dempsey, could have been the central striker.

But Bale started on the left. Predictably, Pardew used Jonas Gutierrez in a defensive-minded role. Whereas Yoan Gouffran attacked quickly on the left, Gutierrez was told to sit deep and double up against Bale. Such is Bale’s threat, this is becoming increasingly common – Sir Alex Ferguson successfully used Phil Jones in a strange, right-of-centre defensive midfield role to restrict his space. “People have been double-marking or even triple-marking me,” he grumbled last year. “I’ve had to mix my game up and I’m improving all the time, especially in that free role.”


Gutierrez did a decent job in the first half, although Bale outfoxed him in the early stages, playing a quick one-two to get down the line, and whip in a superb cross. Although this was encouraging, it wasn’t necessarily where Bale wanted to be. Dempsey’s failure to convert the chance – exactly the type of opportunity Defoe thrives on – underlined the fact that taking advantage of Bale’s crossing might not be the best use of his talents without a proper central striker. After all, another peculiar feature of Bale’s game is his relative lack of assists. He’s only managed one all season (level with Tim Krul, for example), despite the fact he’s created 50 chances for teammates.

Again, this might be a statistical irrelevance – and critics of the ‘assist’ statistic will use this as evidence of its limitations – but it’s the second time in three seasons Bale’s barely created any goals. He only managed one in 2010/11, which is astonishing for a winger who was later named as PFA Player of the Season, although in 2011/12, he got into double figures.

Still, Bale’s position wide on the left does made his game rather predictable – as a winger who plays on his ‘natural’ side, rather than as an inverted player cutting in. His major first-half contribution was his excellent opener – but that was from a free-kick, rather than due to his wide play.

Central role

For the second half, with the score at 1-1, Villas-Boas switched Bale into a more central position. Now, given more license to drift around the pitch into pockets of space, Tottenham’s play improved significantly. Their tempo was higher and their passes were more frequently forward – they no longer spent too much time working out how to pass to a double-marked player.

The positions of his received passes demonstrates the difference in his role:

While the frequency of his shots increased dramatically, too. This was particularly important, considering Tottenham lacked a genuine striker – Bale was forced to become the major goal threat.

Still, the point about breaking into space remains – his second goal came from a direct run on the break, and his best moments came in the final 15 minutes when Newcastle pushed forward, looking for the equaliser. For all Bale’s quality, he doesn’t – yet – have the ability to drift into pockets of space amongst a packed opposition defence – in those situations, he is probably best off starting wide, trying to find space on the outside. Villas-Boas decision to start him wide made sense on paper, but he brought him inside to great effect.


“He’s enjoying his football through the middle,” Andre Villas Boas said after the match. “Today we started as we finished the game at West Brom, with Bale on the left. We gave him the same freedom…obviously when the player feels good about the position, he enjoys it more, and he was able to provide that second goal with his individual brilliance.”

Tottenham’s only problem is an over-reliance upon Bale, especially as sides are using multiple players to try and stop him. As opponents increasingly stay deep, Tottenham will need more players capable of breaking down a packed defence, which doesn’t seem their speciality in recent weeks.

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