Yesterday was a big day for Tottenham Hotspur's Welsh winger, Gareth Bale. Bale's Welsh team was set to take on England at Wembley in Euro 2012 qualifying. Wales had no chance of qualifying for next summer's competition in Ukraine and Poland. Bale was receiving all sorts of build-up from the English press prior to the game, mostly because there's not much else to say about his Welsh compatriots.
Certainly, Bale is the best player at his country's disposal, but comparisons of him to Ryan Giggs are incredibly off-base. Bale's performance in the England match and for Tottenham Hotspur since the beginning of this calendar year have been sub-par. So much so that some, namely me, are starting to wonder just how good Bale actually is.
The man affectionately known as Welsh Jesus (or Weezus if you prefer) around this site hasn't played a really good game in a Tottenham shirt since he scored his marvelous hat-trick at the San Siro and turned in a man of the match performance in the return leg at White Hart Lane. Bale hasn't scored a goal for Spurs since January 1st when he scored the winner against Fulham. In fact since that game Bale has only managed seven shots on goal for his club.
During most of last season, particularly when Bale was running rampant through the Champions League we heard all sorts of hyperbole from the media and Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp. Many said that Bale was the best left-sided player in all of football. While I am willing to concede that you could make that argument, I maintain that it is, in fact, demonstrably false.
Bale has struggled in the Premier League of late, mostly due to the fact that teams now know how to deal with him. Many teams have effectively marked Gareth out of the game by assigning a midfielder to keep tabs on him at all times. James Milner did this fairly effectively for England in the friendly yesterday and when he failed, Ashley Cole was there to pick up the pieces.
Bale excels on the counterattack when he has lots of space to run into. When confronted with slower fullbacks or centerbacks Bale has both the skill and pace to leave them in the dust. However, even moderately competent fullbacks seem to be effective at countering Bale's running. Chris Smalling of Manchester City, normally a center back, and Manchester City's Pablo Zabaleta have both rendered Bale's contributions to nil thus far this season. Zabaleta has done this several times to Bale in the past few seasons.
Additionally, Bale often fails to impose himself upon the game. As a winger he depends upon his teammates more than a player like Luka Modric does. Modric can drift pretty much wherever he chooses to receive the ball. Tactically Gareth needs to remain wide to provide width. He depends on receiving passes from his central midfielders, overlaps from his fullback, and his strikers getting on the end of his crosses. Bale would do well to study Ashley Young, who has quite successfully imposed himself into Manchester United's football this season despite not being the focus of the squad.
What's the problem? Bale has seemed more than willing to cut inside and take on central defenders, but when he gets inside he seems to lack ideas. Bale is not Hulk the wide forward for FC Porto and he isn't David Villa who plays a similar role for Barcelona. Bale is a fullback-cum-winger who is slowly adapting to his role as an attacker. It's my view that Bale has gotten this far on natural ability alone and it will take a lot of work for him to get over the hump in becoming an elite player.
Certainly Bale could go to Italy right now and, with his pace, run rampant over much of the league, but I don't think that's a reasonable scenario here in the Premier League or in Spain's La Liga. Bale's attacking instincts must improve. His finishing is at times incredible and at others sorely lacking. If Bale can develop his skills and learn to impose himself further on the game then he will be a force for Spurs. If he continues to try his current tactics he'll certainly be decent, but no where near what he could or should be.