As I chose to watch the highly entertaining Barcelona v FC Copenhagen re-match today instead of Spurs v Inter, I’ve had the opportunity to read about the game and see some highlights in advance of firing up the PVR and watching the performance that is drawing plaudits from Harry Redknapp to Figo: that of Gareth Bale.
As they run through the lineups and formations, there’s already a couple of things that appear to suit the Welsh winger. Inter are missing their starting keeper. Never underestimate the effect that a different keeper can have on defensive organization and confidence. The second is something I touched on earlier. Inter play the increasingly popular 4-2-3-1. In this game, they are doing so with the 87 year old Javier Zanetti and the unpredictable Sully Muntari. Dejan Stankovic (who started alongside Zanetti in the previous Champs League game against Spurs) and Esteban Cambiasso (who should always be linked to this goal) were unavailable for this game.
I found that unless you can manage the gap between the outside back and the attacking mid you leave a lot of room for a good winger, like Bale, to get the ball and run at the outside back (the renowned Brazilian Maicon in this case).
I’m going to put the game on and comment as I watch it.
Quiet for Bale early doors…a nice Zidane pull back in the 7th minute gets some oohs and ahhs from the crowd but results in a simple lateral pass.
Drifts by Maicon effortlessly in the 12th minute but his harried cross is easy pickings for the Inter keeper. The way Maicon tentatively approached that tackle suggests he’s not comfortable dealing with Bale at all. Still Eto is easily the most dangerous player on the field to this point.
A minute later and Bale has once again blown by Maicon to the inside. It forces Lucio to come well wide to deal with him and this is really the great, understated danger that top wide players bring to the game with strong 1v1 skills. By forcing Lucio to compensate and get pulled 20m from where he’d rather be, it unbalances the remaining defenders. Lucio’s job, once he’s decided to go out to Bale, is now to make up that ground and close Bale down before he can inflict damage with a cross. Bale’s job is to either beat Lucio and further unhinge the Inter back line or get his cross in behind Lucio as he approaches. In the end, Lucio plays it very well, blocks the cross and concedes a corner giving Inter a chance to re-organize.
Spurs first goal was fantastic and well deserved. Modric, long criticized for his inconsistency, make Muntari look silly with a little stop-start that the Ghanaian bites on as he ghosts by him and plays Van der Vaart through beautifully for the goal.
Bale outruns Maicon again in the 23rd minute again. Doesn’t really beat him, just outruns him down the line and gets another poor cross in. You can see the seeds are there for a great performance but there’s been no real payoff in terms of creating danger in the box.
25th minute and Maicon is officially getting roasted. Bale goes by him, gets to the byline and gets his first quality cross in that should really have been finished by Crouch. Great work by Bale.
Definitely part of the problem so far is that Spurs are doing a great job of finding Bale’s feet in areas of the field where he can run at Maicon and Maicon is being given the job of engaging Bale very high up the field, leaving a lot of space in behind. Biabany, the attacking mid in front of Maicon is doing nothing to deny service to Bale and Muntari is staying very central rather than coming wide to help Maicon (he’s probably seen Bale go by Maicon enough times the last two games to know it may be best for him to look busy in the middle of the field but that strategy didn’t work so well on Spurs goal).
29th minute: Bale mixes things up to Maicon’s relief and plays a nice, early switch ball all the way over to Lennon on the right.
31st minute: Mixes it up again with less success as he cuts inside and has a shot with his less favoured right foot. It sails high. Spurs right back, Benoit Assou-Ekotto, made a long, overlapping support run that made it difficult for Bale to take Maicon on again as Ekotto’s run really just served to crowd the space Bale needed to attack 1v1. Harry Redknapp will no doubt tell Ekotto to get the hell out of Bale’s way at half time.
38th minute: Bale on the ball wide with Ekotto overlapping again and it seems to cause Bale some indecision. A tentative low cross is easily cut out.
41st minute: Very good cross from Bale. Hit it early into the box after smartly sussing a 2v2. Maicon’s life is made even more miserable by the fact that the first time he’s ventured forward, it’s Bale that cuts out the ball to him leaving him hopelessly stranded up field as Bale roars back the other way. His quick look to see the potential mismatch in the box (you really can’t not hit a cross into the box when it’s 2v2 and you’ve got Crouch as a target) shows that he’s more than just a head down run at the defender one trick pony. He recognizes options and plays to the best one even if it means releasing the ball early. You don’t see Cristiano Ronaldo release the ball early when he’s played in wide positions. He’s going to take touches on the ball. Lots and always.
Half time: It has to be said that Ekotto has facilitated play for Bale nicely despite crowding him in attacking positions twice. He’s done a very good job defending and tracking players that should arguably have been picked up by Bale so that Bale can free himself up to get on the ball quickly in transition. He’s also provided good early balls to Bale’s feet before he can be closed down, allowing him to take positive first touches towards defenders like Maicon and put them on their back foot early.
47th minute: Bale released down the line behind Maicon forcing Lucio to again come very wide to tackle and put the ball out for a throw in. It’s just not good when your centre backs have to cover that wide, that often. It’s not sustainable.
52nd minute: Smart little overhead kick by Bale from the top of the box after blown clearnace by keeper off cross. Keeper was beaten but ball went just past the post. Would have been hailed as a very clever goal had it found net.
59th minute: Spurs second goal is all Bale again. Maicon is a bit forward and when caught in transiton take the lazy man’s approach and instead of getting goal side tries to anticipate the pass to Bale and cut it off. Instead the ball’s played in behind him and Bale is off. Muntari’s replacement, Obiora Nwankwo, plays Bale like he’s terrified. and watches as Bale walks around him untouched to put a fantastically placed cross for Crouch to re-direct into the goal. As colour commentator Andy Gray says, “It’s a fantastic goal.”
Minutes later, Bale is inches from setting up a third goal as he again leaves Maicon flailing but the ball just clears the byline as he crosses. Two seconds later Crouch has scored but it’s been called out and a goal kick to Inter. The whole Bale v Maicon really has shades of this now. In other words, it’s beyond predatory!
Inter response is to bring on the lead singer of the Romantics. No, my mistake, it’s Coutinho.
73rd minute: Bale loses possession! Only Arsenal fans notice.
Speaking of Arsenal, as good as Spurs are tonight, Arsenal have been in devastating form in the Champions League. White Hart Lane and Emirates are the same distance as going from UBC to 10th and Alma (ie. 6km). Incredible having two teams in the Champions League that close to each other.
Needed that aside to get away from the “Bale beats Maicon” drone. Inter have now scored and made the game even more interesting. No one wants the defending champs to pull within one with 10 minutes to go. That’s a real sphincter tightner.
89th minute: This is the one that was coming. Maicon was caught up field (logically, they’re pushing for a goal and he’s one of the top attacking full backs) and Bale is released. Again, Lucio has to come across but this time he gets caught flat footed and Bale blows by him. Now the other centre back has to come across but Walter Samuel also can’t get there in time to deny the cross. Roman Pavlyuchenko plays the role of Crouch this time and gets the tap in with only holding mid Javier Zanetti in the same time zone as him. Great run and cross by Bale. Again.
Spurs win 3-1. Bale was indeed the dominant force in the game in a completely in your face, can’t ignore way as he ran at defenders and put several dangerous balls into his strikers leading to two goals. What may be a bit overlooked is how much Ekotto helped by effective defending, neutralizing the few Maicon forward runs and provide quick, simple service to Bale so he could do his thing.
I’m quite shocked that after seeing Bale rip them to shreds at the San Siro a couple weeks ago that Inter persisted with a 4-2-3-1 that saw Biabiany play no role at all in denying balls from the back to Bale and Muntari stay central the whole game. It forced Maicon into many 1v1 encounters with loads of space in behind for Bale to gleefully exploit.
Because Spurs were able to exploit this advantage far more than Inter were able to exploit Eto 1v1 against the Spurs centre backs it led to far more attacking chances and eventually more goals.
UPDATE: Zonal Marking say pretty much the same but add a couple good points, more detail and some great chalkboards…but no pics of bears chasing bison so I’ve got them there.