I'm going to make a lot of people rage: Other than his free kicks, Gareth Bale has simply been okay recently. It's not his fault. Lewis Holtby and Moussa Dembele need to assert themselves.
As much as we want Gareth Bale to be Cristiano Ronaldo, he is not Cristiano Ronaldo. Of course, no one in this community has ever equated Bale's game to Ronaldo's, nor has anyone with any serious standing in any sizable Tottenham Hotspur community. He's either a world class or about to be world class player, but he's not Ronaldo, and that's okay.
However, Bale has admitted that he's modeled his game after Ronaldo, which is also just fine. Ronaldo is the best in the world at what he does, and among the best five to ten players in the world, he is the player who Bale is most comparable to. It's conceivable that, if he continues to progress, Bale could approach -- not hit, but approach -- Ronaldo levels in a few years.
But he's not there. He is, depending on what you think of Franck Ribery and Eden Hazard, somewhere in the neighborhood of the second-to-fourth-best left winger in the world, but that doesn't make him the kind of player that can dictate the play by himself. It doesn't mean that he should be drifting into the center constantly, trying intricate short passes and one-twos more often than crosses with his left foot, and generally trying to do everything by himself. He's trying to be Gareth Bale, Moussa Dembele and Lewis Holtby at the same time, which is silly, since we have Moussa Dembele and Lewis Holtby.
Bale has a much more complete game than he did 18 months ago, but he didn't spontaneously grow a right foot and inherit Ronaldo's first touch. He doesn't have the technique and passing vision of Andres Iniesta (though I guess I'm picking a bad day to use that example). He was a run in a straight line and cross left winger who picked up a bunch more skills, and is now dynamic enough to do things other than run to the byline. That doesn't make him a truly complete player.
Once again, that's okay. Bale is what he is: A world class player who is less technically gifted than other world class players at his position. That position, left wing, is rarely one where the guy playing it is asked to dictate play, even though this central winger thing is starting to catch on. Hazard plays with Juan Mata to his right. Ribery plays with Toni Kroos to his right. Ronaldo plays with Mesut Özil to his right. Willian, if we want to bring him into this conversation as well, played with a couple of really damn good attacking midfielders -- Jadson and Henrikh Mkhitaryan -- to his right during his time at Shakhtar. In all of these cases, the attacking central midfielder that compliments the world class winger generally gets as many touches as, if not considerably more touches than, the attacking midfielder next to them. They generally make their few touches count and do one of three things with them: Play a defensive pass, pass to an overlapping fullback, or hit a direct, attacking pass. They leave the dictating of play to central players, which Bale really needs to start doing more.
This isn't meant to be a criticism of Bale. It's more a criticism of Holtby (as well as Dembele, to a lesser extent) and much more so a criticism of the other guys who have played as a No. 10 this season (Clint Dempsey and Gylfi Sigurdsson). It is also, potentially, a criticism of Andre Villas-Boas. I'm not in the dressing room, so I don't know if AVB is explicitly instructing Bale to drift inside and attempt to dictate play, and if he's telling the other players to feed him constantly. If he is doing that, this general criticism of Tottenham and the way they're playing at the moment is also directed at him, and I guess it's less strongly directed at him but still directed at him if he simply isn't telling the players to play differently.
Holtby has been good since arriving at Spurs, but not his best. The fact that he doesn't give the ball away cheaply makes him a massive, massive improvement over Sigurdsson (who makes me very sad) and Dempsey (who is just not that great but occasionally scores to offset that), but it's time to see more from him. It's time for him to be more than a guy who Tottenham can depend on to help them keep the ball and start being the guy who actually dictates play. He needs to demand the ball, he needs to run at players, beating them with dribbling moves, and he needs to try creative, incisive passes.
Similar things can be said about Dembele, who like Holtby, has been an improvement over other central midfield options because he doesn't make bad mistakes. He's a better passer than Bale, however, and probably a technically better dribbler as well. He showed off his quality against Lyon last week with a couple of great dribbling moves and his long through ball to Emmanuel Adebayor, and he needs to do more of it.
Spurs are depending on Bale to be a match-winner at the moment, and it's because other Tottenham players are playing passively. A new striker would help, yes, but strikers need service. It's tough to believe that Leandro Damiao, Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang or whoever you think "THE" striker is would get much in the way of service outside of crosses and set pieces in this current Spurs team, playing as they are right now. Dembele and Holtby both have the quality to create clear chances for their teammates and have shown flashes of brilliance, but neither has strung together a dominant 90-minute game like we have seen them have for Fulham and Schalke, respectably. They have the capacity to dictate play, they just need to do it.
I can't tell you why neither of them has taken a game by throat yet. Maybe they're being asked not to. Maybe I'm overrating their quality (gosh, I sure hope not). Maybe they just need to hop out the bed and turn their freaking swag on. In any event, Tottenham Hotspur will not reach their potential asking Bale to be three players at once.
Ronaldo couldn't pull it off, and Bale isn't anywhere near as good as Ronaldo. He looked sad at the Euros without Özil. Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema wouldn't shut up about how much they needed Alonso before Madrid actually signed him. When Madrid finally signed Alonso, everyone and their mom wrote about how he was the final missing piece in the New Galacticos. You can read four of those here, here, here and here. All of the stuff about him being more important than Ronaldo is outrageously hyperbolic, but the point is that he's really important. So is Özil. Even Ronaldo needs some dudes in the center to create things and dictate play.
It's time for Dembele and Holtby to step up and become just as important to Spurs as Bale. If they don't do it, Spurs are going to stagnate, because Bale can't ... ugh, there really isn't a better word ... bail out Tottenham forever. He needs to stop trying to do everything starting tomorrow, and at the same time, Holtby and Dembele need to control the match.