Tottenham Club Focus – Does Bale need to be left on the wing and not free to roam?

Tottenham Hotspurs lost an astonishing match at the Emirates on Sunday against their bitter North London rivals. From being 2-0 down in the 34th minute, Arsenal hit back to score five goals in the following 34 minutes and to win the match 5-2.

In doing so, Arsenal reduced the gap to Spurs to 7 points. Manager Harry Redknapp sent out his team in the 4-4-2 formation, with the same players that had so convincingly beaten Newcastle; the exception being Younes Kaboul, excellent this season coming in for Michael Dawson. As in recent matches Arsenal lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

Essentially this left Luka Modric and Scott Parker in centre midfield against an Arsenal three, with Louis Saha and Emmanuel Adebayor against the Arsenal centre backs. The Togolese’s ability to drop deep and wide may have been expected to pull the Arsenal centre backs out of position to create space for Saha and midfielders coming forward on the counter attack. The anticipation being that Arsenal, with the extra midfielder would control possession and the centre midfield. With Arsenal playing three in central midfield, there may have been an argument for Spurs using the width that has been so successful this season with the wingers cutting in to any space created by the forwards.

Spurs started at sprint, and in the 4th minute went ahead when Adebayor was able to pass the ball into acres of space for Saha, his shot deflecting over the goalkeeper off of Thomas Vermaelen. This appeared to wake Arsenal up who started to control possession and put Spurs under pressure. In the 33rd minute a precision through ball from Modric saw Bale’s speed carry him past defenders and into the box where he won a penalty, converted by Adebayor. Surprisingly no card was given to Kieran Gibbs for denying the goal scoring opportunity.

Shortly after that Spurs could have gone three up when Bale clear on the left chose to shot from distance and at an angle when a cross would have found Saha in clear space in front of goal. From then Arsenal dominated possession and pushed Spurs back, their two goals in the final five minutes of the half perhaps no real surprise. Redknapp made two substitutions at half time, Saha and the ineffectual Niko being replaced by Sandro and Rafael van der Vaart. The substitutions made no impact and by the 68th minute Arsenal had closed the match out with their fifth goal, Spurs poor day compounded by a red card for Scott Parker who will now miss the Manchester United game.

Whilst Arsenal’s defence was poor, Spurs had an uncharacteristically poor day all over. There was little width, Kranjcar’s average position being central midfield and perhaps Aaron Lennon running at Gibbs should have been the preference. In defence there was perhaps too much space between Ledley King and Kaboul which was exploited by the dangerous Robin van Persie and Tomas Rosicky. However, perhaps the main concern was the Bale free role. Designed to be a Plan B if the Welsh flyer was having a lack of success on the wing, since the Norwich game the Plan B appears to have become the norm, leaving the left back position more vulnerable.

Against Arsenal, Bale’s average position was at the apex of the centre circle where he was up against Arsenal’s two sitting midfielders; with only 43% possession the ball was not getting to him. Arguably by taking this position it couldn’t, with both Modric and Parker unable to find him through a congested centre. On the wing he may have been more of an outlet, more of a threat on the counter attack and perhaps crucially more help defensively. Benoit Assou-Ekotto had a poor game, but having had a groin operation only last week, there was an argument for dropping Bale’s free role which left him exposed against both Theo Walcott and Bacary Sagna.

Much of Tottenham’s success this season has seen a 4-4-1-1 formation with Bale and Lennon supplying a frightening pace on the wings. Is it time to return to this successful formula? The day may have belonged to Arsenal but Spurs should bounce back from this defeat and finish the top team in London.

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