MILAN ITALY - OCTOBER 20: Gareth Bale of Tottenham Hotspur scores his second goal during the UEFA Champions League Group A match between FC Internazionale Milano and Tottenham Hotspur at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on October 20 2010 in Milan Italy. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
How times change. In the bygone days of the Harry Redknapp era, when players were free to roam undirected and unmanaged from one side of the pitch to the other without a care or a purpose in the world, playing Gareth Bale on the right wing was seen as a sacrilegious, downright deviant perversion of everything that was pure and beautiful about the way our team played last season. Now, with the appointment of André Villas-Boas to the managerial post this summer, and with the promise of a more forward-heavy 4-3-3 soon to be implemented, the notion of our very own Welsh Wizard coming to occupy the role previously reserved for Hulk at Porto under AVB as a cutting-in RAM has suddenly for some reason become an altogether more appealing possibility.
Maybe it's because we always thought Bale had the potential but was never pushed enough in the past to make the role his own. Maybe it's because we think AVB is a more tactically astute coach than Harry and can coax a whole new dimension out of the young wonderkid. Maybe it has something to do with bacon sandwiches (what in recent THFC history hasn't?). Whatever the reason, it really does seem tempting to think that Bale could make the jump this year and evolve into the missing piece of the jigsaw in Villas-Boas' preferred formation, the right inside forward. Ultimately, however, I'm not convinced that converting Bale into a miniature Welsh Hulk is the right step forward for the club, and through some slightly wonky metaphors I intend to demonstrate how.
The first point I want to make is that whenever I have seen Bale played on the right in the past, it hasn't worked. At times in the Premier League when called upon to fill the role this past season, and for Wales on the international stage, bale has looked uncomfortable and out of place occupying the RAM spot. The truth is that Gareth doesn't seem to have quite mastered the art of cutting in yet. On his best nights, Bale has benefitted from having an unbroken run up towards the goal- using the momentum behind him, he can get around the right back and power in a shot before his presence in the opposition half has even been registered. We've seen it time and time again, and it works. It works for Bale, which is why forcing him to break up his attacks forays with the changes of direction required of a right forward don't make much sense.
But fair enough, I understand that there's an argument for converting Bale into a right winger. He's young enough, and a decent enough raw finisher, to have a decent shot at making the change to an RAM. If AVB were to make him a project for the season, there's every chance Bale might be able to make the leap to evolving Pokémon-like into a different type of player. But I think there's a more subtle, and yet at the same time more far-reaching, reason to oppose such a conversion. The fundamental issue at play, I feel, is squad balance. In a very real sense, football squads function like extremely miniaturized ecosystems. Regardless of what Harry Redknapp might have tried to demonstrate over the past three years, player roles within the best football teams are highly interdependent, and have to be studied in tandem with one another. When players possess the sufficient degree of raw talent and maturity, this starts to matter less and less- Steven Gerrard and Ryan Giggs will slot in pretty much anywhere to prop up whichever formations they have to. For some players, organizing an intricate ecosystem around them is less of a priority.
This is certainly not the case with two of Tottenham Hotspur's more prominent youth players of the past season- Gareth Bale, and Kyle Walker. Both have demonstrated in recent seasons the same qualities that have made them simultaneously frustrating and mercurially brilliant- impetuousness, ambition and a free-spirited approach to bombing forward. This state of affairs requires both to be accommodated by players with a more level-headed approach to the game. In Bale's case, this is Benoit Assou-Ekotto, the left-back whose positional awareness and overlap abilities are vastly underrated, and who affords Bale all the time, space and freedom a dynamic young winger could want. In Walker's case, it's Aaron Lennon, who last season was good at dropping back and covering for the defense, allowing Walker to bomb forward and overlap across him at will.
The real issue with playing Bale on the right is that it upsets the whole delicate balance of Spurs' game plan. With bale and Walker both marauding forward into the same space, the point of both is somewhat negated- they get stuck under each others' feet and prevent the development of cohesive attacks. It just doesn't work, and it never will. It's why our attempts to mount a meaningful assault on the defences of sides like Everton and Stevenage were doomed to fail with Bale out of position. So the question boils down to this: do you drop Kyle Walker in order to give Bale the time and space to breathe as a right attacking forward? Or do you drop Bale to allow Walker to carry on bombing forwards?
Or, as a wild third possibility- do you let them both just carry on doing what they do best? After all, Bale's shown that he can be both a goal threat and a creator, notching up goals and assists for fun on his day. Walker bombs forward for a living, that's just what he does, and it's that crazy and adventurous streak that won him the PFA Young Player of the Year last season. So my case ends on this this simple proposition: experiment all you want with the squad AVB, let Bentley be a right back or Jenas play up front if it pleases you. But don't end up completely unhinging what makes the best members of our squad tick just to make Bale the new Hulk- he's incredible enough at what he does already.