As the closure of the January transfer window approaches, this winter’s dealings have been noticeable for they’re lack of a big ‘will-he-won’t-he’ transfer saga. Sure, Gary Cahill and Chelsea did their best to drag out a deal, and there was Beckham to PSG story, but did anyone (apart from me) really care? There was certainly nothing to rival the long, drawn-out affairs of Ronaldo to Real, or Fabregas to Barca, or even last summer’s Modric to Chelsea
The summer will no doubt provide much more interest for the gossip-hungry football fan, particularly with the European Championships taking place in Poland and Ukraine. One player sure to be involved in a future transfer tug-of-war is Welshman Gareth Bale. Strong performances in last year’s Champions League alerted the winger to all of Europe’s biggest clubs. Internazionale, for whom Maicon was an early Bale victim, were the first to register an interest. Manchester City, another reportedly interested, are perhaps the only English club that would be able to match Tottenham ever-increasing asking-price. However, most of the transfer speculation centres around Spain’s big two, Real Madrid and Barcelona. The thought of Bale joining the Lost Boyo ranks at either club is enough to get even the least interested Welsh football fan salivating, but at which of the two giants would Bale’s talent be best exploited?
Bale: The evolution
The notion of an attacking full-back is not a new one. As long ago as the 1960s, Giacinto Facchetti would fly up the wing for Inter, scoring more than 70 times for the Nerazzurri. Their importance has, however, increased as the game has speeded up. Here, Jonathan Wilson notes that the ’94, ’98, ’02, and ’06 World Cups were all won by the teams with the most impressive full-back pairings, many of whom began their career in midfield or attack and were later shifted back to exploit their attacking skill.
Bale, while by no means the only exception, has bucked this trend by doing the reverse. Beginning his career at left-back – a 17-year old Bale won his second Wales cap marking Ronaldinho in a friendly against Brazil – Bale moved onto Spurs’s left wing in the 2009-10 Premier League, scoring vital late season goals in wins against Arsenal and Chelsea to help his team qualify for the Champions League for the first time and has not looked back since.
The following season, while playing in Europe’s top club competition, Bale showed the world how dangerous he could be in his new left-wing role, netting a late hat-trick in a 4-3 defeat to Internazionale at the San Siro and, despite that defeat, helping Spurs win a difficult group at their first attempt.
Bale’s evolution has continued further into this season. At international level, he showed his increasing versatility by switching wings to play wide-right in Wales’ new 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation. Although qualification for this summer’s European Championships was impossible, Gary Speed’s young team found some late form and Bale was one of the star men, scoring three goals in three autumn wins. Indeed, Bale’s two most talked about performances of the past two seasons (away at Inter in 10/11; away at Norwich in 11/12) show him at his most versatile and highlight his goalscoring threat.
In the league, Bale has been a much more consistent threat this season. Accused of being a little lightweight in his early Premier League days, Bale has played every minute of the 21 Premier League matches he has started in 2011/12. He has already bettered his ’10/11 season goals and assists tallies before we have even reached February. More interestingly, Bale seems to be becoming a much more complete player. He is playing more passes, more accurately. He is playing more passes in the attacking third and creating more chances. As Bale makes better use of the ball, he is attempting to take on opponents less frequently (once every 10 mins in ’10/11, compared with every 17 mins in ’11/12), but is enjoying greater success when he chooses to do so (from 24% up to 30%).
Stastistics adapted from FourFour Two Stats Zone App
(Correct as of January 27th, 2012)
Real Madrid and FC Barcelona
Does Bale even need to leave Spurs? He’s a star and when fit is a virtually guaranteed starter in what many believe to be the Premier League’s most well-balanced midfield quartet. Will Spurs be able to hang on to those players? Reports indicated Modric was ready to leave last summer and there is likely to be further interest this year. In addition, his manager, Harry Redknapp, is favourite to succeed Fabio Cappello as England manager after Euro 2012, and with Spurs losing out in the Olympic stadium fiasco, the club is nowhere near being able to achieve the kind of revenues their rivals pull in.
In a recent interview with the Telegraph, Bale tells of how the freedom with which he currently switches roles at Tottenham was something he had suggested in order to improve himself as a player. Bale is clearly a very ambitious footballer, so why wouldn’t he want to test himself at one of the world’s top two clubs.
Bale is a Jose Mourinho-type player and his steamroller-like sprints through defences would fit in with the Real’s current team. Mourinho’s team seem to have the measure of the rest of the league (except for, of course, their great Catalan rivals), overpowering opposition sides right to the top of the league – Madrid are currently 5 points clear of second and have scored a massive 67 goals in just 19 games.
Where exactly Bale would play at Madrid is much more difficult to say. Similar to how Bale is used to lining up at Spurs, Mourinho usually sends his team out in 4-2-3-1 formation. However, the Spanish side already possess a string of quality left-footed players – Marcelo, Coentrao, Di Maria, Ozil – capable of filling the positions Bale would likely be challenging for, something Mourinho has already alluded to. To play in his current left-wing berth, Bale would be in direct competition with Cristiano Ronaldo.
Second-placed Barca may not have scored as many as Madrid (although 59 goals in 19 games outscores everyone but Manchester City- in 22 games- in Europe’s major leagues), but they are the pass masters. Pep Guardiola’s side are used to enjoying the bulk of possession, but are also known for working hard to win the ball back quickly by pressing high up the field. It’s a style that has been highly successful, with Guardiola’s men lifting 13 trophies since he took the reins in the summer of 2008. For most of the last four years, Guardiola has lined his men up in 4-3-3, but this season has experimented, most notably with a 3-1-4-2 in December’s Clasico.
The tall, muscular Bale might not look like a tiki taka player, but we’ve seen above how he is becoming a more intelligent player and is making better use of the ball. Bale’s physical presence would provide an alternative to many of Barca’s current squad, and while Guardiola’s experiment with the more physical Zlatan Ibrahimovic did not work out, Bale lacks anything like the Swede’s ego. His indefatigable running would also fit with Barca’s pressing game.
In Barca’s more familiar 4-3-3 of recent years, Bale could play in either of the wide forward positions, although he would face stiff competition in the shape of Pedro, Villa, Fabregas, Alexis Sanchez and, never to be forgotten, Lionel Messi. If Guardiola persists with a 3-1-4-2, Bale would provide balance on the left to Dani Alves on the right.
Bale the Lost Boyo: Barca or the Bernabeu?
Weighing everything up, we at Lost Boyos (and our loyalties are split between the two giants) think Bale would be better off at Barcelona. Few players in the world can have undergone the same meteoric rise from reserve left-back to all-conquering wide-man as Bale has in the last two years, and there’s no reason why that rise should not continue to the very top.
Bale is probably not yet at the technical level of Barca’s best, but that is a side of his game that has shown year-on-year improvement. A similarity in style and position to many of Madrid’s current squad could prevent an immediate path to the starting eleven and ,while Bale would in no way be guaranteed a start at Barca, Guardiola’s growing flexibility (experimentation?) with formations and Bale’s increasing versatility might lead to more opportunities to play.
So there you have you it: the Lost Boyos choice for Bale is Barca. 57% of Barca fans are in agreement with us, so all we need now is for Guardiola to do the same.