In Sunday's match against Manchester United, I would argue that Gareth Bale was the best player to take the field. Once the game started though, the play didn't back that up. Aaron Lennon stole the show, as he was left with half the field to roam and exploit with Clint Dempsey and Jermain Defoe. Bale meanwhile sat on an island, marked tightly by Rafael and, most of the time, Phil Jones. He had seven shots but only one was on target. He did his part to draw three fouls but outside of that, Bale had little direct effect on the outcome of the Manchester United match. Indirectly though, Bale backed up the idea that he is one of the most dangerous players in the Premier League.
The massive attention Bale received in the Manchester United match allowed for the lopsided attacking numbers between the two teams. Tottenham had five times the shots and four times the shots on goal of Manchester United. We doubled their corner numbers as well. This came from the advantages afford to Dempsey, Lennon, Moussa Dembele and the rest of the team by the defense that Bale has proven his requires. So far on the season, Bale has matched his career high of nine goals in little more than half as many games. While overall assist numbers are about level, his league assists mark is down. That I chalk up to poor strike play and the teams inability to knock home clear cut chances at a poor rate. Hidden in all of this is the fact that Bale is the teams most accurate shooter this season with more than 30 attempts.
Despite consistent criticisms that have appeared in the comments over the past two seasons about Bale's drifting inside, by most accounts it's actually made him a better player. At least last season, Bale turned in his best season ever, with nine goals and ten assists. Bale's ability to shoot with his right foot has improved, and his goal total this season has shown that Bale is morphing himself into a goal scoring threat, to add to his deadly crossing ability. If Bale maintains pace right now until the end of the season, he'll end up being the first pure winger since Cristiano Ronaldo to tally more than fifteen goals in a season.
This begs the question, what is Bale's potential? He's only 23 this season. His abilities have improved by leaps and bounds, apparently, each season. The trouble is, we can't tell. Bale is having his deadliest goal scoring season ever, even without Benoit Assou-Ekotto behind him to overlap when he cuts inside and offer a one-two passing opportunity. Meanwhile, he's having a rather poor season crossing the ball, which can be chalked up to Defoe's struggles up front. Finally, he's been getting double marked, as mentioned, all season. What if we had a winger like Willian on the right, or if Lennon could also add a goal scoring side to his game? Imagine what Bale could do with only the fullback to worry about.
The pure joy that fills my heart at the thought of what Bale could do, in ideal conditions, is amazing. It's coupled with the worry that unless the pieces arrive that are needed to let Bale reach his potential, he'll want to move somewhere where the team suits his play style more. That means Levy needs to acquire a striker who will do something with service provided by Bale, as well as help play him into the box. It also means that I'd like to see Lennon work on his goal scoring ability from the right. His tempo right now is slower than the rest of his front line teammates according to OPTA, and I would love to see Lennon take a stab at improving on this front as well. Barring that, bringing in a right winger who offers a different kind of look to Lennon wouldn't be the end of the world. In the end though, the biggest factor in whether or not Gareth Bale will keep improving and improving is Bale himself. If he keeps improving at this rate, in a couple years time we could be saying without qualification that he is the best British footballer in the world.