There was something particularly assured about Gareth BaleÃ¢ÂÂs three finishes in TottenhamÃ¢ÂÂs 4-0 win over Aston Villa on Boxing Day. It wasnÃ¢ÂÂt just the calmness with which he despatched the ball into the net, but his entire movements after receiving the ball Ã¢ÂÂ his touch was good, and he had time to compose himself before shooting.
It was the WelshmanÃ¢ÂÂs second career hat-trick. The first, in a 4-3 defeat at Inter Milan, involved Bale continually outpacing Maicon on the counter-attack at a stage when the game was out of TottenhamÃ¢ÂÂs reach, but opponents have become wise to that classic wing threat, and few of BaleÃ¢ÂÂs goals have been scored by motoring past opponents on the outside.
Instead, Bale has varied his game over the past couple of seasons, forced to adapt after finding himself double-marked against opponents sitting deep. He increasingly played in central positions last season under Harry Redknapp, trying to influence the play from obvious playmaking zones oÃ¢ÂÂ but this harmed his ability to pick up the ball on the run and dribble past opponents. The experiment in the middle was broadly unsuccessful.
This season, and in particular against Villa, Bale has played a different role. HeÃ¢ÂÂs not permanently staying wide and picking up the ball outside the full-back, but nor is his starting position in the centre of the pitch. Instead, heÃ¢ÂÂs starting wide before drifting into the penalty box unnoticed. Neither side of North London will appreciate the comparison, but BaleÃ¢ÂÂs runs are reminiscent of ArsenalÃ¢ÂÂs Freddie Ljungberg around a decade ago Ã¢ÂÂ perfectly timed drifts from wide areas, arriving in the box unnoticed.
Ã¢ÂÂHis finishing is very accurate,Ã¢ÂÂ said Andre Villas-Boas. Ã¢ÂÂHe has been prolific in front of goal this season and I think he is enjoying getting into those positions.Ã¢ÂÂ Villas-BoasÃ¢ÂÂs influence upon Bale is clear Ã¢ÂÂ the Portuguese coach has always encouraged his wide players to get into the box, and to collect balls played in behind the full-back, rather than on the outside.
Against Villa, the positions of BaleÃ¢ÂÂs received passes indicates he was playing as winger (in a 4-4-2), but he timed his runs nicely to the edge of the box, catching the opposition by surprise for his goals.
It relies on good service into his path, however. In SpursÃ¢ÂÂ previous match, the 0-0 home draw with Stoke City, Bale rarely got himself into the penalty box and instead attempted shots from long range, which were generally unsuccessful.
At the midway point of the 2012/13 season, Bale has already scored nine league goals Ã¢ÂÂ which equals his total from the entire 2011/12 campaign. ItÃ¢ÂÂs vital that the Welshman contributes goals himself, because Ã¢ÂÂ slightly surprisingly Ã¢ÂÂ he doesnÃ¢ÂÂt provide a great deal of assists. In 2010/11 he claimed just one in the Premier League, and although he reached double figures last season, his assist for Aaron Lennon against Liverpool in November is the only goal heÃ¢ÂÂs created so far in this campaign.
Bale clearly has incredible natural talent Ã¢ÂÂ heÃ¢ÂÂs brilliant with the ball on the run, yet frequently his wide play is frustrating. He receives the ball and skins an opponent before thumping a cross in front of the onrushing striker Ã¢ÂÂ his play appears too quick for his teammates, as well as his opponents. As his deliveries from the games against Stoke and Aston Villa shows, he rarely finds a teammate from open play Ã¢ÂÂ his corners are a more reliable source of chances.
ThatÃ¢ÂÂs the odd thing about Bale Ã¢ÂÂ heÃ¢ÂÂs a natural winger, but not a natural provider. To contribute something tangible to his side, and to turn his raw talent into outright efficiency, he must continue to contribute goals. Two seasons ago he stayed wide, last season he often featured more centrally, but now heÃ¢ÂÂs in a hybrid role. His positioning and movement against Villa Ã¢ÂÂ staying wide before turning up unannounced on the edge of the box Ã¢ÂÂ appears the best recipe to turn Bale into a regular marksman.