The introduction of both Tom Huddlestone and Tom Carroll in to the game with Everton highlighted our need for a probing passer without Gareth Bale.
Since moving to the middle, the Welshman has been able to quickly transition the ball in to the final third by either running and dribbling at opponents or by passing it forward.
So, without Gareth Bale for at least the next two weeks, are we in need of either Tom Carroll or Tom Huddlestone in the line-up?
Gareth Bale moving the ball
As I’ve written before, there are various pros and cons about Gareth Bale moving in to the number ten role for both himself and the team. What it has done though is allow us to play with a very direct, vertical thinking number ten.
This can unsettle many a defence as Bale is able to run at teams – his average dribbles per game are up from 4.4 per match to 6.4 in the Premier League since his central switch. He also gets more shots away – his average efforts per match are up from 4.3 to 7.5 since the move to the middle, which brings defenders out more to cover him. His passing in the final third has seen him create chance every 29.5 minutes, as opposed to every 40.5 minutes before the switch.
Fashioning opportunities for others is something that has often been overlooked in this recent run due to two factors. Firstly, his goal scoring and secondly, his team mates are not converting the chances he is creating.
Without Gareth Bale at home to Everton at the weekend, we played with Lewis Holtby, Scott Parker and Moussa Dembele in the centre of midfield. Whilst these are three very effective players at what they do, it brought a different dynamic to the team.
Parker, Dembele and Holtby
With Scott Parker, Moussa Dembele and Lewis Holtby at the weekend, we naturally lacked the same cut and thrust that we usually get from Gareth Bale driving forward.
Moussa Dembele transitions the ball through dribbling past a player then moving it square to a team mate. Scott Parker has to get forward more than last season, but is responsible for getting the ball to the wider players, the number ten and Moussa Dembele.
Against Everton, the pair both got caught in a passing sideways trap, as the Toffees sat back, packed the middle and played on the counter.
Lewis Holtby on the other hand is more of a conventional number ten to Gareth Bale. He is a passer, rather than a direct dribbler or shooter, who will play the ball square or backwards as much as he will do forwards in order to maintain possession.
On Sunday he was always available to receive the ball and kept the play ticking over, without being too incisive with his passing. This is in part due to Everton playing deep and narrow, whilst also as a result of the identity of our centre forward. Emmanuel Adebayor drops off and links the play more than Jermain Defoe who works higher up on the shoulder of the last defender.
Lewis Holtby is still quite a tidy in possession and he took care of the ball again here, despite lacking any penetrating passes. He did try three crosses from positions out on the right, but none of them connected with a Tottenham target.
Overall these three players lacked an incisive presence to transition the ball quickly forward in to attacking positions inside or around the penalty area.
Tom Huddlestone entered the game and immediately started to move the ball quickly in to wide areas over great distances, quickening the tempo of the Tottenham attacks.
His top-passing target was Gylfi Sigurdsson, playing as a wider forward, as the ball was quickly moved through the final third.
Huddlestone may lack the mobility of Gareth Bale, but his passing was moving the ball more vertically up the field than it had previously been doing. His introduction brought someone in to the game that transitioned the ball quickly through this zone, which was required against a team dropping off.
Although Tom Carroll was only on the field a few minutes, he once again demonstrated that he too could move the ball incisively through the final third. He attempted four passes through the inside right channel in to the area, as he looked to slide in a through ball for a team mate.
We’d seen the same in a brief cameo by the youngster against a Fulham side that also dropped off and played on the counter against us a few weeks before.
Carroll came on against the Cottagers and although he didn’t create an equaliser, started to move the ball vertically through the final third.
Tom Carroll transitions the ball with much shorter passes than Tom Huddlestone, but the incisive nature of his play makes him equally as effective.
Time for Tom or Tom?
Whether or not you’re a fan of Gareth Bale as a number ten, he does transition the ball incisively through the final third by either dribbling, passing or shooting.
Without the Welshman, we lacked that same verticality about our game and allowed Everton to slow the tempo and directness of our play.
Tom Huddlestone and Tom Carroll both changed that in different ways. The former with long switches out towards the wider attacking players; the latter through shorter, more purposeful forward passing.
Without Gareth Bale, Andre Villas-Boas really needs one of these two players to continue to keep the tempo of our play up and transition the ball forward quickly. The problem for our Portuguese coach is which Tom and whom does he replace?