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:
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.