One man army – Analysing how Gareth Bale took Sheffield United apart almost single-handedly

Gareth Bale with the match ball.
Gareth Bale with the match ball. (imago Images)

Gareth Bale scored a superb treble vs Sheffield United

Gareth Bale was one of the best players in the Premier League when he was playing at Tottenham Hotspur before his move to Real Madrid. Since then, his form in Spain did not do justice to the then world record £85.3million dished out on him by Los Galacticos. Jose Mourinho then offered the Welshman an escape route.

The Portuguese manager signed the Welshman on a season-long loan from the Spanish side last summer. Bale suffered a slow start, but has since hit form in a way akin to his pre-Madrid form in England. And all of his best traits were on display as Spurs thrashed Sheffield United by a 4-0 margin, with Bale scoring the first three.

Bale’s role in the formation

On paper, Bale was a right-winger, where he started for Spurs against the already-relegated Blades in a tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation. The 31-year-old played alongside Dele Alli (the attacking midfielder), Harry Kane (the number 9) and the ever-so-deadly Son Heung-min on the left-hand side.

And on average, that is how the game panned out too. Image A shows the average positions of the starting XIs of both teams after the game. Bale is seen in his natural position and so are the others, with the slight exception of Son, who seems playing closer to the centre than the wing.

Image A. (WhoScored)

However, Bale’s best moments in the game came down the middle rather than on the wings. Let us see how.

The goals

A massive part of Bale’s game against Sheffield United was his runs inside the box. He wasn’t doing it all the time, but carefully saw the space and then exploited it on a few decisive occasions. This resulted from Spurs players interchanging positions to accommodate the Welshman’s ventures.

Centre-forward

Bale was playing as a No.9 at times. Take the first goal as an example. Image B shows Bale (yellow circle) being right down the centre of the pitch’s width.

Image B.

He is found with a chipped ball from Serge Aurier (black circle), Spurs’ right-back who has drifted centrally. Bale’s run inside the box is quick, well-timed, beats the offside trap, and sets him up for a first-time finish. The bouncing ball was slotted into the net by him.

Kane and Sergio Reguilon’s roles here in the image will be analysed later in the article.

Turning on the afterburners

If you thought that Bale lost a bit of pace due to bulking up during his time in Spain and entering into the 30s, you might want to reconsider that. Spurs broke away on a counter-attack from a Blades corner-kick. The South Korean winger carried the ball forward.

And who was making the run into the acres of green land in front of him? That’s right; Gareth Bale. He was rapid to make the run centrally into open space, something a natural striker would do. That is evident in Image C, where Son’s (red circle) pass is played into Bale’s path, who carries the ball into the box and slots it home coolly.

Image C.

Kane’s role in this goal will be analysed below.

Interchange with Kane

We cannot keep describing his goals at this point without explaining Kane’s role in all of them. The English striker is the assist leader, and hence, the top creator in the league this season. You can rarely get such stats by just playing down the centre. You need movement for that, which was on full display against Sheffield United.

We start off by showing the third Bale goal. Image D shows Kane and Bale in the role Mason started them in. The Welshman (yellow circle) is on the right while Kane (red circle) is in the middle. But the arrows show what happened next.

Image D.

Now, in the next frame, Image E, you can see that Kane has taken the space on the right wing, expecting a ball from Aurier (in possession of the ball. Bale, meanwhile, makes a central run and exploits the space emptied by the English international. This is best seen in Image E where Bale (yellow circle) is now the striker while Kane (red circle) assumes the role of a right forward.

Image E.

Now let’s revisit Bale’s second goal. As you can see in Image C, Bale is the furthest man forward and making a darting run down the middle. This is because Kane was dropping deep at times, especially on set-pieces, while Bale assumed a centre-forward position.

Image F highlights it well, showing Bale one-on-one, where his left-footed shot finds the top-right corner from just inside the box. The goalkeeper had no chance at all. But in the backdrop, you can see (red circle) nowhere near the box because he was often letting Bale play as the No.9.

Image F.

This is where we refer to his first goal. Image A shows Kane (red circle) playing as a right-winger, while Bale is in the centre. Reguilon (blue circle) is bombing up the pitch to double with Son on the wings and this makes for a front 3 completely different from what was intended on paper.

A statistical masterclass

This performance was as close as it gets to a perfect 10. Bale was marvellous and Image G proves that. 83.33% of his shots on goal were on target, and three of them found the net. He had no crosses attempted, proving that he was most effective when changing roles with Kane. And his heatmap further shows that he was seeing a lot of action in and around the box.

Image G. (SofaScore)

What’s more interesting is that his chances were not all that easy. Image H shows all off Bale’s shots in the game against Sheffield United, with the stars being the ones that found their way into the net. But the three shots he took had a combined xG (expected goals) of only 1.03. That is some brilliant finishing on his part.

Image H. (Understat.com)

Bale also had the most number of shots in the match despite being taken off 15 minutes before full time. This also means that Bale has an astonishing 8 goals and 1 assist in his last 6 league starts for Spurs.

Verdict

Bale is hitting his best form and Spurs should really look to keep him. His shooting, combination play and positional awareness was top notch against the Blades. And if he keeps this up, he could well find himself in the conversation of the best attackers in the world again.

But he still seems a little slow getting back to help out his defence. Image G, his lack of tackles and interceptions show that. Plus, he lost the ball a fair few times. These are small chinks in Bale’s recently forged armour but there is still time in this season to work on that.

Written by Aniket Rai

An ordinary football fan, doing what he loves.

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