x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

PFA award contenders: Gareth Bale is the bail-out man for Tottenham

Whenever Spurs needed a boost, the left-footed winger has floated in to take centre stage, writes Jonathan Wilson.

Tottenham Hotspur's Gareth Bale has terrific speed, and can float through the defenders. Ian Kington / AFP
Tottenham Hotspur's Gareth Bale has terrific speed, and can float through the defenders. Ian Kington / AFP

It is hard to imagine now but when Gareth Bale first arrived at Tottenham Hotspur, in the summer of 2007, he was seen as a bad-luck charm.

For two painful seasons, he didn't play on the winning side in a Premier League game, a run that spanned 24 matches. Thank goodness, then, for his seven-minute burst replacing Aaron Lennon against Burnley in September 2009. Spurs were 4-0 up when he came on, and not only did they not capitulate, but extended their lead to win 5-0.

Back then, nobody was quite sure whether Bale was a full-back or a winger, but that question has been emphatically answered over the past three years.

He is a forward, capable of playing centrally as well as on the flanks. It is wide, though, that he seems at his most effective, where he gets the room to tear at full-backs.

It was on the left that he really announced his quality, scoring a hat-trick in Tottenham's 4-3 defeat to Inter Milan in October 2010 and following it up by destroying Maicon the following month as Spurs beat the Italians 3-1.

He was just 21 then and still raw, hugely gifted but inconsistent.

The improvement in his game since has partly been a matter of nuance, of making the right decision more often, but it has largely been an issue of producing something like his best every week.

Bale has become the man Spurs rely on in extremis. They turn to him when they need a goal. Sunday's game against Manchester City was typical.

Bale, in his first game back after an ankle injury, was relatively quiet, and yet it was still he who laid on the equaliser with a deft pass with the outside of his left foot, leaving Clint Dempsey in so much space it was as though nobody else on the pitch had seen the possibility of the ball, before sealing the victory with the third Spurs goal.

The run to create the space for Tom Huddlestone's pass was exceptional, and once he was behind the defensive line he was never going to be caught; the goal was inevitable long before he chipped a classy finish over Joe Hart.

It is not just that he is strong, quick and technically gifted, what has made Bale particularly special this season is that, when intervention has been most needed, he has intervened.

Take the game at West Ham. He had already scored once, but with the clock ticking down, he surged forwards, was bundled off the ball, bounced up, took a pass from Gylfi Sigurdsson, and rattled a shot into the top corner.

It was one of those strange shots only he and Cristiano Ronaldo seem capable of that somehow both float and move at terrific speed, wobbling in the air to confound goalkeepers.

The comparison with Ronaldo is apt, not necessarily in terms of quality but in terms of style and, perhaps most significantly, desire to improve.

The byways of British football history are littered with doughy bodies of unfulfilled talent, of those who thought talent was enough and did not also make the sacrifices and put in the effort to develop their gifts to the maximum.

Bale seems to have a relentless drive to succeed and no off-pitch peccadilloes that might hold him back, something acknowledged by Swansea's Nathan Dyer, who played with him at youth level for Southampton. "I remember him having the same technique as he has, but I think the pace and the power has blown even me," said Dyer.

"He has blown everyone out of the water with what he can do now. He is the total footballer."

The only negative is his diving. Bale has been booked on five occasions this season for simulation, although in the away games at Fulham and Sunderland he seemed unfortunate, going down dramatically after minor contact.

His argument has always been that, given the pace at which he runs, that it takes only a slight knock to destabilise him.

He has worked, though, to iron out that flaw, and now defies gravity far more successfully than he used to.

To says Spurs are a one-man team is ludicrous, but no player has been so instrumental to his team's fortunes as Bale.

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