With Gareth Bale in fine form, Tom Gatehouse compares the Welshman to his former teammate, Theo Walcott, and assesses the fine line between the good and the great.
The English press love a rising star, especially a British one. With European and South American footballing nations churning out player after player of natural brilliance, England finds itself dropping further behind culturally, regardless of how high they climb on the questionable FIFA World rankings table.
Much has been said of the youth in this country, and how at grass-roots level we are not nurturing our young players in a way to keep pace with the likes of Spain, Germany and Brazil. This purported ‘lack’ of talent leads to such incredible fervour and excitement when the odd one or two rise from the ranks.
The flavour of the month is once again Tottenham’s Gareth Bale, the man who is almost single-handedly tearing up sides at home and abroad this season. His two stunning goals against Lyon on Thursday, both free-kicks, took him to 17 goals for the season in all competitions, and boss Andre Villas-Boas is fast running out of superlatives to describe his wing wizard.
“Incredible,” . “Not only his all-round game but the ability he has to strike these free-kicks.”
“The ball gains power when he strikes it and it changes direction easily.” Villas-Boas told the Daily Mail.
“At some stage, we were on about taking the two if possible.”
“But we could get Walcott and I am very happy we got him. You’d be amazed by the number of players we should have signed. Every club misses players.” Wenger told the BBC
Bale and Walcott were two of the most anticipated talents in the English league for many years, along with Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and most recently, Wilfred Zaha and Raheem Sterling. Both Bale and Walcott left the then Championship side Southampton and made the trip up to North London, to Tottenham and Arsenal respectively. Both are now 23, solid first-team starters, and remain firmly in the public eye.
But something happened to Bale during his growth as a player, something no-one could see coming. Once a reasonably average left-back, capable of a surging run or two, has now become a monster of a left winger, utterly terrorising defences with his newfound physique and devil-may-care attitude. Predictably, pundits and papers start comparing him to Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi.
Everyone remembers Bale’s astounding hat-trick in the 4-3 defeat to Inter Milan in the 2010-11 Champions league, aged only 21. Two years later, and he is arguably one of the world’s premier footballing sights. He is one of those very few players who is capable of dramatic influence on every move he is involved in, sometimes looking like a whole different class of player than his teammates and opponents.
This is common for the Messi and Ronaldo, who light up La Liga on a weekly basis – and when Bale is producing such brilliant performances, as he has been over the last month, it may not be blasphemous or pre-emptive to compare him with the illustrious duo, on the basis of form.
But Bale still has a long way to go to be considered one of the very best in the world, as Wenger reminded us,
“Bale has the potential to develop and become the players that you compare him to,”
“However, Messi has won two or three Champions League, a few championships, scored 95 goals in a year, so let’s not go too quickly.” Wenger told the BBC
The world is truly at the feet of the Welshman, with fans and pundits alike purring over the sight of him haring at defences, scoring goal after goal. Wenger has Walcott, not Bale, and he is content; but what else could he say? Clubs miss out on players, young and old, every year.
Theo Walcott remains an enigma, for all of his current form. Throughout his contract wranglings, Walcott showed the world that he is quite capable of devilish pace and deadly finishing, whether up front or on the wing. His 11 goals and 11 assists in the Premier League is already his best haul in a season, and he is proving to be an important player this season for the Gunners. But the Englishman is still far from the finished article, as questions about his vision and general decision-making continue.
That is not to say Walcott is not a good footballer, as it has been cuttingly suggested. The power of Walcott is not in his general play, but how he is harnessed and used to his strengths. Not unlike a Rook on a chess set, the key is in the timing; having him dart up, far into enemy territory, using his blistering pace. Once there, he can wreak havoc with his agility.
Walcott will never be a Bishop, or a Queen, and Wenger knows that. Bale on the other hand, has it all. Defensive application due to his time as a full-back, speed and territorial awareness, heading and dead ball expertise, long shots, and a vicious crossing technique.
Bale hasn’t reached his peak yet either, and isn’t that a scary thought?