Transfer talk: Gareth Bale out can actually make Tottenham stronger
With seconds of the final game of last season remaining, it seemed that Tottenham Hotspur were going to be frustrated by Sunderland, but then Gareth Bale picked the ball up on the right, drifted infield and smashed a brilliant finish past Simon Mignolet.
With Arsenal winning at Newcastle United, it was too late to earn Uefa Champions League qualification for Spurs, but it did seem to encapsulate the season: it was the sixth time Bale had scored a late goal to decide a game.
"If you want to develop the team you have to keep hold of your best assets," the Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas said then, but Bale's move to Real Madrid now seems only a matter of time.
His departure, of course, will be a blow to Tottenham, not merely in terms of ability, but also the prestige he brought. But given that Bale had always spoken of Madrid as a possible destination and the extraordinary size of the fee, the club may come out of it rather well.
There was much griping last season that Tottenham were a one-man team, but that was never the full story. What is significant about those six games Bale turned with late goals is that they all came after Christmas.
In fact, of the 26 goals he scored in all competitions last season, only seven were scored before December 25. In part, that might have been down to his own form, but it was also because Jermain Defoe was injured, Emmanuel Adebayor was out of sorts and no striker had been signed in January, so Tottenham altered their approach to play through Bale.
There was a conscious policy to work the ball to him in scoring areas.
It was broadly successful, but Tottenham will not play in the same way if Bale is not there. Data from whoscored.com shows that in all Premier League games last season, Tottenham attacked down their left 37 per cent of the time; against Crystal Palace on the first weekend of the season, that figure had fallen to 31 per cent, while a staggering 48 per cent went down the right as they tried to use the pace of Aaron Lennon against the struggling full-back Dean Moxey.
Although Spurs were probably frustrated by their struggle to convert possession and domination into goal chances, the plan worked to the extent that it was Moxey who conceded the penalty that gave Spurs the only goal.
Dinamo Tbilisi, beaten 5-0 on Thursday in the Europa League, had no answer to Tottenham's attacking prowess; Swansea City this afternoon will be a far stiffer test.
When Thierry Henry left Arsenal, Cesc Fabregas spoke of feeling a new sense of freedom; he began picking the best pass rather than the pass that would get the ball to the forward.
Bale has never dominated the Spurs dressing-room as Henry did at Arsenal, but Tottenham may see similar benefits, provided that Bale's departure is not the start of a broader player exodus.
In that sense, by making Spurs less predictable, by increasing their options, they may even become stronger through the sale. And in that, the fee of roughly £90 million (Dh514.8m) clearly would help.
Toward the top end of the market, the desire to make a record signing creates inflationary pressure. Realistically, there is no way that Bale, gifted as he might be, is worth the same as Edinson Cavani and Radamel Falcao combined, and yet that is what this summer's business would seem to suggest.
Tottenham would probably rather have done their dealing earlier in the transfer window, but still, they can use the Bale money over the next year to sign three or four genuinely top-class players.
Even if, as now seems likely, they miss out on Willian, gazumped by a Chelsea side who seem to be stockpiling attacking midfielders, they appear to be on the verge of signing the promising Argentine Erik Lamela, 21. Although he may take time to settle, he offers pace and goals cutting in from the flanks.
Given the business Spurs have done already this summer signing Nacer Chadli, Paulinho, Etienne Capoue and Roberto Soldado with Lamela, they would almost certainly be a stronger squad than last season, even without Bale.
The worry, though, is that his ability as a match-winner would have been lost, and with it some of the club's lustre.
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Published: August 24, 2013 04:00 AM