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On Gareth Bale

The Idylls of the King, starring Gareth Bale

What a pleasure it has been, over the past year, to watch the emergence of Gareth Bale—all the more so because it’s unlikely that the pleasure will last. Already the British press is scrutinizing him too closely, discerning immense significance in every blaze of success and every damp squib of failure—and not even failure, just games without scoring or setting up goals. Bale’s utter destruction of Maicon in the Champions League matches with Inter was followed by a loss to Bolton and a draw with Sunderland, and some of the same people who had just been claiming that Bale is the equal of Messi turned and (equally forcibly) chastised the world for making too much of a couple of games—only to have Bale come back with a brace against Blackburn, leading to a renewal of the Messi comparisons.

It’s enough to make a fellow seasick, and one wonders how well someone with Bale’s retiring personality will handle it: he’s been known to blush when being praised in interviews, and when told by Harry Redknapp, earlier this season, to take a few days at the beach, he went home to stay with his mother in Cardiff. All this is just the kind of thing that the British sporting press eats up like free bags of crisps, and would stand a chance of making even the most assertively outgoing among us a trifle self-conscious, but there may be one avenue of escape for Bale: he’s Welsh. This has spared Bale, and us, ten thousand reports comparing the innocent, clean-living, modest, and (relatively) late-emerging Bale with the crass, selfish, formerly prodigious, smoking-drinking-pissing-and-screwing Rooney. (Which is to say, we’ve only gotten a few hundred such stories.)

But leaving all this aside, as best we can, let me say it again: what a pleasure it has been to watch Bale these past few months. As something like an old-fashioned pacey winger in a game not dominated by pacey wingers—and a left-footer playing on the left, which is becoming kind of counter-cultural these days, given the influence of left-footers playing on the right and cutting in, a la Arjen Robben and Messi—he doesn’t see the ball a great deal, which causes the observer to gasp a bit and rise six inches off the sofa when he does get the ball in space.

Bale is a pretty big man—though the player-info sites I’ve seen all list him at 6 feet even, Redknapp says he’s 6’2″, and I believe ‘Arry. Bale’s bursts down the left flank are therefore thunderous in nature, which tends to paralyze opposing fullbacks, making him look even faster than he is. Adding to the effect is his ability to make slight changes in direction without losing pace: a defender leans two inches to one side and Bale is instantly past him on the other, looking absolutely jet-propelled—and he does this while keeping his head up and his eyes scanning the field. The precision of his crosses is wonderful in itself, but more impressive still, to me anyway, are his ability to pick out the right attacker to cross it to and the timing of those passes.

In the coming months I expect to see teams try to take away Bale’s left foot, to push him towards the center of the pitch where he has to use different skills and find different angles for his passes. If he can develop a cultured right foot, to coin a phrase, then he really will be among the game’s best. But right now he’s having a great time blasting down that left flank, terrifying defenders and giving his teammates every incentive to run as hard as they can to get into the box—because if they do, Bale will get them the ball. And if they don’t, he just might take it himself and score. What fun.

Of course, this is just one of several hundred things that Messi does to be dangerous, while’s it’s almost the only thing Robben does to be dangerous. But you get the point.

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On Gareth Bale

by Alan Jacobs · November 19, 2010

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