Tactics: What is Gareth Bale’s best position?

Claims that Gareth Bale’s two scintillating performances against Internazionale have turned him into the best player in the world may be a little far-fetched, but it is no exaggeration to say that in Tuesday night’s match at White Hart Lane, almost everything he did with the ball at his feet was magnificent. Speculation is already rife about which European giant he will elect to join if and when the time comes to leave Spurs, but an important decision also needs to be made about where on the pitch he should play.

Damien Comolli, the man who oversaw Bale’s move from Southampton, says he thought he’d found “the new Maldini”, and Bale and his manager, Harry Redknapp, are in agreement that his best position will ultimately prove to be at full-back.

“In the long run, I still think Gareth Bale will develop into a fantastic left-back – hopefully the best in the Premier League,” Redknapp told the September issue of FourFourTwo magazine. “We wouldn’t lose any of Gareth’s attacking flair if we moved him to full-back… He’s good enough and energetic enough to get back and forward all day long. When you play as a left-back, it is difficult for the opposition to mark you.”

For the time being Bale is playing as a left-sided midfielder and his best performances this season have all come when he has been allowed to hug the touchline, bringing him into direct confrontation with the opposition right-back and giving him the opportunity to use his explosive pace to devastating effect. The average position data from Tuesday’s game shows that he operated closer to the touchline than any other player on the pitch:

The average positions of the players in Tottenham Hotspur's 3-1 victory at home to Internazionale in the Champions League group phase in November 2010; UEFA

An integral factor in Inter’s undoing was the high defensive line they held, which gave Bale ample space to attack when Tottenham broke forward (Inter under Rafael Benitez have adopted a much more aggressive pressing strategy than they did under José Mourinho, and they are still getting to grips with the system). Paradoxically, Bale may find it easier to play against elite teams like Inter, because they press so high up the pitch and leave so much space behind their back line. It is for this reason that his two most impressive career performances to date have come against the same opponents in the space of a fortnight.

Furthermore, it is only in a 4-4-2 (or a similar shape, such as 4-4-1-1) that Bale has the positional freedom to pick the ball up in deep positions wide on the left and run at defenders. Of the eight teams that reached the Champions League quarter-finals last season, Manchester United were the only side who deployed genuine wide midfielders on both flanks. Were Bale to join a top European side and play as an attacking wide player, the chances are that he would be deployed in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, where he would receive the ball closer to goal but would probably struggle to generate the same momentum as when he plays as a more orthodox wide midfielder. At full-back, however, he would have the whole left flank ahead of him and – crucially – nobody marking him closely.

Given his pace, athleticism and attacking instincts, the player who Bale most closely resembles in terms of skillset is, ironically, Maicon – the man he ruthlessly ripped apart at White Hart Lane. Fielding Bale at full-back but with a remit to patrol the whole of the flank – as Maicon does for Inter and his Brazilian compatriot Dani Alves does for Barcelona – would allow him to give full vent to his phenomenal physical attributes, without denying him the space he requires to reach top speed. Wedging him into a 4-2-3-1, on the other hand, would shackle him more effectively than any opposition right-back could ever dream of.

10 Responses to “Tactics: What is Gareth Bale’s best position?”

  • Jack:

    Gareth Bale is a fast winger with a fantastic cross and a potent strike. He has never been particularly good defensively. Why anyone thinks he is a left-back is beyond me.
    http://www.youllwinnothingwithyids.com

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tim Hill, Thomas Schaling, Gary Robertson, Arthur Papasamdi, Hervito Hutama and others. Hervito Hutama said: RT @tomwfootball: Blog – Why Gareth Bale could still learn a thing or two from Maicon: http://bit.ly/9efs0r [...]

  • Roberticus:

    Great stuff Tom,

    you’ve succinctly illustrated how Bale is a player who needs space to thrive, whereas outside-forwards like Robben, Ribery or Pedro tend to accelerate from a standing position and/or rely on trickery to fashion some space for themselves.

    We also saw how Dani Alves struggled when Guardiola played him as an old-fashioned winger in a 4-3-3 vs Madrid last year (Alves was so visibly uncomfortable that he began sagging back into deep midfield positions to find himself some space, which rendered Barca’s shape a 4-4-2).

  • lefthog:

    The last paragraph tells us exactly why Bale SHOULD NOT play Fullback permanently. Maicon was so threatened by Bale that he never got forward. But when you take away his contributions on the attack and combined with his defensive frailties Maicon was a burden for Inter last night.

    Another thing to point out is that Maicon receieved very little help. That responsibility should have mostly been on Biabiany. But he failed to track back properly. Tottenham on the other hand have two “by-trade” Fullbacks marauding their left. Consequently Inter did not produce great danger from that side. Nearly all attacks came through the middle or the left (as W. Sneijder was drifting to that side).

    In regards to the formation, i would say that any of the modern formations (except those with a mitfield diamond) can be shaped to accomodate Bale, the winger. And even Bale, the winger from DEEP. For instance Germany play a pretty standard 4-2-3-1 with the left footed Podolski hugging the left touch line.

    You could make an argument that Bale should play Fullback against weaker oppostion but right now with Assou-Ekotto pretty much himself more of an attacking Fullback a switch would not make much sense.

  • rose:

    based on these statements:

    > it is only in a 4-4-2 (or a similar shape) that Bale has the positional freedom to pick the ball up in deep positions wide on the left and run at defenders
    +
    > wedging him into a 4-2-3-1 would shackle him more effectively than any opposition right-back could ever dream of

    and

    > of the eight teams that reached the Champions League quarter-finals last season, Manchester United were the only side who deployed genuine wide midfielders on both flanks

    there’s only one conclusion:
    Utd next, son)

  • [...] Tactics: What is Gareth Bale’s best position? “Claims that Gareth Bale’s two scintillating performances against Internazionale have turned him into the best player in the world may be a little far-fetched, but it is no exaggeration to say that in Tuesday night’s match at White Hart Lane, almost everything he did with the ball at his feet was magnificent. Speculation is already rife about which European giant he will elect to join if and when the time comes to leave Spurs, but an important decision also needs to be made about where on the pitch he should play.” (Football Further) [...]

  • David H:

    Fullbacks don’t really need to be good defenders anymore. You don’t need more than 2 deep defenders at any one time, due to most teams deploying only one forward. So long as his team employs a flexible defensive midfielder, Bale can overlap all day w/o worrying too much about defense. Maicon plays this way, as does Alves. For those two, it’s a defensive midfielder who drops back into their position when they go forward.

    Teams these days use 2 defensive midfielders & 2 central defenders, so there’s little need for fullbacks to be more than sort of competent defenders. The fullbacks on the most successful teams are there to attack, not defend. No team has won a World Cup, European Championship or Champions League in years w/o at least one extremely good attacking fullback — Roberto Carlos, Maicon, Evra, Sergio Ramos, Alves, Lizarazu, Thuram, Zanetti, Brehme, Grosso. They didn’t do too much defending, but could be devastating in attack.

  • Farty Foulke:

    As the writer himself contends, it is far too early to assess Bale. In particular, it is too soon to imagine how will deal with the specific targeting he will now receive. Little more than a canny full-back – Phil Neville – snuffed him out recently. At Old Trafford he was virtually a bystander.

    Every great player has to prove himself again once the focus is in him.

  • [...] full-backs moved into the kind of position where you would expect to find a conventional winger. Gareth Bale’s stellar performances for Tottenham have understandably received plenty of attention, but Everton’s Seamus Coleman and Ronnie [...]

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