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Just how much better is Gareth Bale in the centre?

With six goals in his last four Premier League games for Spurs and eight in his last six overall, Gareth Bale is a player bang in-form.

That hasn’t always been the case this season though. In fact, prior to the Norwich match on 30th January which got the current run started, Gareth Bale had only scored in one of a string of six Premier League matches. Admittedly it was a hat-trick away to Aston Villa, but Fulham, Stoke, Sunderland, Reading, QPR and Man Utd all kept him off the score sheet in December and January.

The key to his excellent run has been his switch from playing as a wide forward on the left, in to a number ten role. The Welshman has come inside to operate in more central areas in several matches throughout the season, but hasn’t played as a direct number ten as he has done recently.

It all started at half time in our trip Norwich, when a goal down, Gareth Bale switched positions with Clint Dempsey and it has continued from there.

But the shift in to a central role has paid dividends on several parts of his game in the last four Premier League matches.

Gareth Bale gets on the ball more often

The switch in to a more permanent number ten role, rather than having Gareth Bale drift inside, allows him to get on the ball more often.

In the last four Premier League matches we can see the improvement in not only how much of the ball he sees, but also in the locations of where he gets it.

PL Games
1-23
PL Games
24-27
Mins on pitch1742 mins383 mins
Mins per pass received2.5 mins2.2 mins
Mins per pass rec in opp half3.4 mins2.7 mins
Mins per pass rec in final 3rd6.1 mins4.7 mins
Mins per pass rec in opp penalty area18.5 mins14.7 mins

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The switch in to a central role gains Gareth Bale extra touches of the ball per match. Whilst receiving it every 2.2 minutes before, as opposed to every 2.5 minutes now on pitch may not seem like much, this is an extra 5 passes received per match.

Not only is he seeing more of the ball, but the numbers get greater in their differential the further up the pitch he goes. Whilst receiving it slightly more in the opposition half, he is seeing it much more in the opposition penalty area.

This has had a knock-on effect to his shooting, shot locations and most importantly, goal scoring.

Gareth Bale gets more and better quality shots

The switch in to a number ten role and seeing more of the ball has allowed Gareth Bale to get a greater number of shots from more preferable locations.

PL Games
1-23
PL Games
24-27
Mins on pitch1742 mins383 mins
Mins per shot21 mins12 mins
Avg shots per match4.3 shots7.5 shots
Shot accuracy45%47%
Goal conversion11%18%

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Not only has his minutes per shot taken improved, but he is also taking on average three more shots per game and hitting the target with increased regularity. This has resulted in more being converted in to goals.

If we take a look at some games on stats zone before and after the switch, we can see how the move not only affords him more shots, but from more preferable locations.

Against Liverpool earlier in the season, Gareth Bale played on the left and as a result his shot locations are from the left side of the penalty area across goal.

gareth-bale-spurs-vs-liverpool-shots

Gareth Bale shots against Liverpool (Goal is from a free-kick).

He did score with a free-kick from the right hand side outside the area and this is the key to his central switch for me. Playing from more central areas allows him to open up his body and have the full target to aim at, rather than shooting across goal from the left.

At West Brom a couple of weeks ago, now installed in the number ten role, Bale cut across from the inside right channel and fired a left-footed drive past Ben Foster.

The goal was a thunderous effort in to the top corner, but wasn’t the first that he had tried from a similar location. From here, he can come inside and open up his body to have the full goal to aim at, rather than shooting across goal as he cuts in from the left wing.

gareth-bale-spurs-vs-wba-shots

Gareth Bale shots for Spurs against West Brom.

Take his goals in West ham 2 Spurs 3 on Monday night. The first was an example of him receiving the ball in the inside right channel, then working across to his left on his stronger side, opting when to shoot and having the full goal to aim at.

The finish ended up coming from the left side of the box, as it did on his wonder-strike to win the game, but the initial build up came through the inside right channel. This allows Gareth Bale to dribble on to his stronger left side, pick his moment to open up his body and fire at the target with more of the goal to aim at.

gareth-bale-spurs-vs-whufc-shots

Gareth Bale shots for Spurs against West Ham.

The shifts of the ball and dribbling exhibited in the strike at West Brom, the two goals against West Ham and let us not also forget his goal at Norwich, highlight another factor that has improved.

Central switch takes advantage of his dribbling

Free-kicks aside, all of Gareth Bale’s goals in recent matches have involved a certain amount of dribbling and this is another factor unleashed by a move to the middle.

Gareth Bale was always able to blister past full backs in wide positions, but now he is able to take on players in more central locations to create shooting opportunities.

What’s more, now that he is seeing more of the ball, he is able to dribble at the opposition more often.

PL Games
1-23
PL Games
24-27
Mins on pitch1472 mins383 mins
Mins per dribble attempted20.5 mins14 mins
Avg dribbles per match4.46.4
Dribble success40%61%

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Not only is Gareth Bale able to attempt more dribbles from receiving more of the ball, he is beating opponents at an increased rate with his completion up by 21%.

Having more room to operate in the centre, rather than being out towards the sideline and facing two or three defenders, is having a positive effect.

Gareth Bale is creating chances

In amongst the increased amounts of dribbling and the resulting shots and goals, Gareth Bale is actually creating more chances since his move in to a number ten role.

PL Games
1-23
PL Games
24-27
Mins on pitch1472 mins383 mins
Passing accuracy77.4%82.6%
Mins per chance created40.5 mins29.5 mins
Assists20

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Whilst Gareth Bale was creating over two chances per match in the Premier League earlier in the season, he has upped that to three per game since his central switch.

Despite his efforts, he is yet to assist on a goal since the switch and only has two assists in the first 23 Premier League games this season.

Just how much better is Gareth Bale in the centre?

Although it’s only been a few matches, Gareth Bale has shown a remarkable improvement in his play since moving in to the number ten role. He is receiving the ball further up the pitch, taking more shots and scoring more goals, whilst also creating more chances.

The initial signs are good, but there are still a number of concerns.

Firstly, can Gareth Bale play with his back to goal, something Clint Dempsey struggled with when he played there and is a pre-requisite for a number ten.

Secondly, can he operate in the middle of the park when it is congested due to an opposition five-man midfield? And can he do it at White Hart Lane where teams will come and sit deeper?

Spurs have had trouble against sides that have sat back this season, especially at home, struggling to unlock the door. Gareth Bale has scored 15 goals so far in the Premier League, but only 4 have been in front of the White Hart Lane faithful and only two of those from open play.

Norwich, West Ham and Newcastle are all struggling in the lower half of the table, whereas West Brom were reduced to ten men. Three of these four matches were on the road, so Arsenal at home this Sunday will provide the first true test of the capability of Gareth Bale playing in the centre.



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