Greatest seasons: Villas-Boas helps Gareth Bale break free at Tottenham
It's easy to forget among the current hand-wringing and post-mortems at White Hart Lane (not to mention the season-long speculation as to how over £100 million was squandered so spectacularly by chairman, Daniel Levy and his Director of Football, Franco Baldini) that Spurs' effervescent winger, Gareth Bale was sold to Real Madrid last summer for £86 million.
Eighty six million quid. Think about that for a second. It's a sum that surpassed the previous world record paid for Cristiano Ronaldo (£80m) and amounted to seven Daniel Sturridges (£12m) or a couple of Juan Matas (£37.1), with an extra arm thrown in for good measure.
Of course, this was an extravagantly-inflated sum, blown out of all proportion by Madrid's lavish opulence and Levy's hard-nosed negotiating bravado. However, to Spurs' then manager, Andre Villas Boas, Bale represented a hell of a lot more than a world record transfer fee. It could be argued that Bale's availability was the safety blanket required to secure his position at White Hart Lane.
Certainly, during their one season together, the pair helped to establish Spurs as an entertaining and effective creative force in the Premier League: Bale with his desire, speed and imperious technique; AVB with his foresight to listen to a footballer self aware enough to unlock a match-winning potential.
His ability was not news - he had won the PFA Players' Player of the Year Award in 2011. But with some tactical tinkering, Gareth Bale V.2013 was able to become a perennial and decisive threat.
It hadn't always been that way. Prior to AVB's arrival, Bale had been deployed mainly on the left flank under the stewardship of Harry Redknapp, first as a full back and later in a more advanced role where he established himself as an effective attacking unit following a poor start to his Spurs career.
Injury and poor results curtailed his early promise; Bale played 24 league matches without winning a game. It was even reported that Redknapp had been interested in a deal to sell his talisman-in-waiting to Nottingham Forest, only for the player to reject the idea.
Spurs fans and their manager were later thanking their lucky stars. Within a season, Redknapp had transformed Bale from his initial position as a left back into a winger. His subsequent dismantling of Inter Milan's defence in the 2010/11 Champions League group games were proof of his blossoming ability, though any experiments whereby Redknapp positioned Bale centrally were greeted with howls of derision from frustrated Spurs fans (see the terrace chant, "He plays on the left/ Gareth Bale he plays on the left").
With his technique confirmed on the highest of stages however, and Inter Milan full back Maicon, still suffering from motion sickness, Andre Villas Boas felt comfortable enough to grasp the positional nettle when he replaced Redknapp at White Hart Lane during the pre-season of the 2012/13 campaign.
"I had Gareth knocking on my door once, not crying, but he was complaining a little bit," said the then Spurs manager in 2013. "He said he wanted me to help him to enjoy his football a little more. We had a good conversation. Hopefully it turned out well for both of us. From that moment onwards his drive, his passion and his ambition towards the height of elite football has been immense."
That determination and desire soon reaped rewards. Following their fateful discussion Bale was deployed in positions behind a lone striker, working from a wing position while moving into the spaces that opened up between his opponents' midfield and defence. It was in this area that he proved so devastating.
In matches against Newcastle and Norwich he utilised his speed to drive at back-pedalling defenders before finishing inside the penalty area. When he found himself being marshalled by centre halves outside the box, he was able to shift the ball away, before shooting - and often scoring - from distance, as he did so against Sunderland, and more memorably against West Ham, when his late, long range strike proved the decisive goal in a 3-2 victory.
There were other high points, too. His drive through the heart of Manchester United's defence, past a floundering Rio Ferdinand, to score in Spurs' 3-2 win at Old Trafford; a 25 yard free kick against Liverpool; at times, his ability to flip the ball past the last man and move away from markers at speed was unplayable. Log onto YouTube and watch his hat-trick in the away fixture at Aston Villa: Bale's performance brimmed with pace, imagination and intent.
Overall, though, it was his ability to conjure goals from nothing, seemingly out of shooting range, that proved so fruitful for his manager. There were times during 2012/13 when Spurs seemed unable to breakdown well-organised defences. It was in these matches, as evidenced by his goal against West Brom at The Hawthorns, that Bale was able to shift the balance so decisively. A jink inside, a lash of the left boot on the edge of the box; according to Opta Stats, nearly half of his 21 league goals came from outside the box. It was a stat that Bale attributed to practice as well as belief.
Practice makes perfect
"Confidence is like the old Gary Player line, the more you practice the luckier you get," he said. "I worked hard at my game… No-one wants to be stuck on the wing where you get a couple of markers put on you to take you out of the game.
"That free role is fantastic; you can go for a wander and try and find the space to affect games pretty much for the 90 minutes. But I've also been practising my new role in training all season and working incredibly hard with the manager on tactics, so what we achieved was not by accident."
The stats that season spoke for themselves. Bale scored 26 goals in 44 appearances as Spurs narrowly missed out on Champions League qualification despite securing their record Premier League points haul. He scored more winning goals than any other player in the top flight. Meanwhile, his performances scooped numerous individual awards, including the PFA Players' Player of the Year, the PFA Young Player of the Year, and the FWA Footballer of the Year.
It was unsurprising that Real Madrid would come calling. It was even more unsurprising that Spurs should sell. But while the transfer fee initially resembled a major coup, the fall out from Bale's departure, and the club's inevitable, sinking Champions League hopes, have since destabilised two managers - and counting. Bale's 2012/13 campaign will go down in history as much more than a great player seizing his chance.
"We're taking out one of the best players in the world and replacing him with seven players (at Spurs) who have never played in this competition before," said departing manager, Tim Sherwood in arguably his most measured public statement this season. "How on earth did people think we would be title challengers or even make the top four?"
It's this reality, not the money or smarty pants boardroom brinkmanship, that has weighed most heavily on Tottenham Hotspur this season. How the fans know it. How Gareth Bale must know it, too.
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