Gareth Bale is not a #10.
And continuing to play him there is hurting our team.
"But he's played so well there," I hear you crying out. But has he?
Gareth Bale first decided he was a central player in the last thirty minutes against West Ham. While the Hammers were bunkered in their 18 yard box, Sigurdsson came on, Bale moved inside, and he scored a wonderful match-winner. Since then he's started four matches behind the striker: Home to Arsenal, Home to Inter, Away to Liverpool, and Home to Fulham.
In precisely zero of those matches did he succeed playing as a #10 in the crowded central areas of the pitch. I can see the surprise in your eyes, so let me remind you.
In the four matches before his move to the middle, he managed six goals. But since then? Against West Ham, his goal came from the middle, but only because West Ham dropped so deep behind the ball. He didn't have to deal with the crowded middle of the pitch, because by this point in the match, it didn't exist. His goal against Arsenal was brilliant, but he had little impact on the rest of the game. And arguably his position on the goal was more akin to that of a striker than a #10--hanging off the shoulder of the defense. Against Inter there was again no crowded central areas of the pitch because they sat incredibly deep and applied no pressure in midfield areas. He had a lovely assist against Liverpool, but it came from a free kick out wide. And he did little else of note. Yesterday against Fulham he created our best chance--but it came from wide on the right.
What are Gareth Bale's greatest strengths as a player? Phenomenal pace and athleticism, the ability to beat a man, fantastic crossing, and a beautiful shot. Do any of those sound like the skillsets for a #10? When you think of a number ten, you want a guy who can score, sure, but more importantly, you want a guy who can float between the lines, hold the ball in tight spaces, and play creative passes to bring other guys into play.
Gareth Bale has a pass completion rate across the season of 77%, which is not good at all. Not all of that is his fault, since he often plays brilliant crosses that none of our mediocre strikers can get on the end of. But since the West Ham match and his redeployment in the middle, his average has dropped to a mere 70%. Some of that is down to the players in front of him, but Cazorla and Oscar manage well better than 80% passing a match, and their strikers aren't any better than Adebayor. What the statistics reveal, and what your eyes should tell you, is that he's not a #10, and the type of movement and passing required from that position does not have anything to do with the things Gareth Bale is good at on a football pitch.
Since his deployment behind the striker, he's been markedly worse than he was as a wide player cutting inside.
Bale spending some game time in behind the striker is in itself no problem. In fact, for many months, pulling in from the left flank and operating from a central position looked to be the ideal way of preventing him from being easily double-marked out of the game while simultaneously drawing out his eye for a goal in better scoring positions. Bale's success in this respect was the evolution of his game that many of us had been waiting years for. Yet these dalliances through the middle prior to his full positional switch only brought so much providence for Bale because they represented an expansion on the way he already played.
In starting on the left and then occasionally surfacing down the middle, Bale looked a far more complete attacking player than he had before and has since--someone who could bombard defenses from the flank initially, but build from this role to devastating effect by appearing behind the striker when the right moments emerged. This is why discovering Gylfi could play out wide was such an awesome development--not because it meant we had a Bale replacement on the wing, but because we had an actual #10 who could fluidly interchange with Bale, allowing him to start in his best position but liberating him to fulfill multiple roles in a single game as situations demanded.
By contrast, playing Bale as an outright center forward behind the striker has now stripped back those hard-earned layers of complexity from his game. Having just escaped from the straightjacket effect of the orthodox winger tag to become an unstoppable, unpredictable force of nature that nominally starts wide but confounds defenders by sporadically, yet effectively, mixing it up, he's now found himself in a new pigeonhole as a center forward--a role which as previously explored doesn't suit his talents and doesn't help the team at all. It is only by taking Bale back to the fundamentals of his game and limiting him to timely and contextually-dictated forays into the center that we can liberate his talents again without wasting the incredibly vital #10 spot on the side.
Not only is Gareth Bale ill-suited to the role, but he throws our whole team out of whack--especially while Lennon sits on the injury table.
We desperately lacked width in the past few matches and AVB has tried everything to fix it--Dembele wide, Benny wide, Siggy wide--but he has yet to try the thing that makes the most sense. Gareth Bale, he plays on the left.
This team's entire offense has been structured around the direct wide play of our two speedy wingers. And in the past few matches, we haven't had any on the pitch. Naturally, this has caused quite a few problems. First and most obvious, it's forced us to play very narrowly. All of a sudden a team that is used to almost exclusively attacking quickly down the wings now 30 games into the season has to adjust to a new style of play. That would be difficult to manage even if we had the personnel to adequately play that way. We don't. What's more, by playing so narrowly, the space around Bale in the middle is even more congested than it would be with wide players supporting him. As a result, he becomes even less suited to playing the position than he already is.
But the biggest problem is that not only are we playing a formation we're not equipped to play with players who aren't equipped to play there, in order to force the team into this shape, we're taking players out of positions they're actually very good at. Our best central midfielder and our best fullback have both been shunted wildly out of their comfort zone, all to accommodate Gareth Bale in a position he's not really suited for. Even Gylfi Sigurdsson, who has finally begun looking comfortable occupying Bale's role coming inside from the left, today found himself shoved on the right. The knock-on effect of losing the width we so desperately require has been to fall apart in other areas where we should be perfectly fine. Meanwhile, we have a world class winger on the pitch who could solve all of these problems just by playing the position he's best at.
So to summarize: we have a world class player who, instead of playing the position where he's world class, is playing in a position he's not especially well-suited and in order to accommodate him there we've forced several other players into positions they're not especially well-suited, and meanwhile the only way we can accommodate him actively makes him less suited to the position, all while weakening the side in other places. Nothing about that sentence makes any sense.
Given that the effect Bale has had playing centrally has been minimal, and the cost to both Bale and our team playing without any width has been arguably significant, it's a no-brainer where Bale should be lining up. He wants to be Cristiano Ronaldo? Awesome. Cristiano Ronaldo plays from the left. He cuts inside and scores goals. That's where Gareth Bale should be.
(Thanks to patrickfealty for the assist. I liberally plagiarized him while working through this piece. A more generous sort would say he co-wrote it. Ok, fine.)