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The 23-year-old has has developed into one of the top-flight's best players over the past few years but to make the most of his potential, he needs to return to his roots

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By James McManus

Tottenham winger Gareth Bale has been applauded for his development as a footballer over the past two seasons but, in order to flourish under the club's new boss Andre Villas-Boas, he needs to rein in his ego and carry out the role assigned to him, otherwise comparisons to Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo will continue to remain a distant dream.

The 23-year-old Wales international is facing a potentially career-defining season this term at White Hart Lane but a few worrying tendencies have begun to creep into his natural game and the term 'world-class' has been thrown far too readily in his direction.

In the first half of Tottenham's 1-1 home draw against Steve Clarke's doggedly determined West Bromwich Albion, Bale delivered a masterclass in wing play, hugging the touchline, tormenting Steven Reid, angling ball after dangerous ball into the box and proving a constant threat.

However, in the second half, when the visitors grew more into the game, he displayed his penchant for wandering inside in search of the ball, adversely affecting the balance of the team and diminishing his own personal influence.

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The team's main attacking threat throughout but was handed the task of providing the majority of their cutting edge. Was guilty of wandering inside in search of the ball as the game wore on.
Harnessing the mercurial wide-man is one of the major challenges confronting the Portuguese boss this season. Worryingly, predecessor Harry Redknapp struggled to integrate Bale successfully into a more central free role last term - to the overall detriment of the team.

A match-winning individual performance at Carrow Road last December against Norwich City, when Bale scored both goals, was hailed as the dawning of a new era for the player and the next logical step in his progression in terms of his positional future.

It was a breakout performance, as significant in its way as his two maulings of Inter full-back Maicon during Tottenham's entertaining Champions League run back in 2010-11, which announced him as a player for the big occasion.

In the aftermath of those Inter performances, Redknapp praised the Welshman's character, proclaiming: "I gave him three or four days off last week. I told him to go abroad for a few days - and he did. He went to Cardiff to stay with his mum."

Yet Bale's subsequent evolution into Tottenham's foremost creative outlet has been accompanied by a marked change in the player's demeanour.

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From his petulant reaction to Charlie Adam's late tackle during a pre-season friendly, when he labelled the Liverpool man a "coward", to his refusal to stay positionally disciplined for the benefit of the team or his somewhat attention-seeking goal celebration, there's an underlying arrogance to him that was not there before.

There's a sneaking suspicion that he already sees himself as bigger than the club and destined for greater things than Spurs can ever offer him, which is an alarmingly flawed way of looking at things.

There was a time before all the success when was merely a young player with unfulfilled potential. Indeed, at one point in his Spurs career he hadn't tasted a league victory for 25 games - a winless streak spanning 1533 minutes, 28 months and three different managers.

He nearly even joined Championship side Nottingham Forest on loan back in January 2009 and between then and the following January started just one of a possible 36 league games, a reminder that his early days at White Hart Lane were fairly humble.

It's also worth remembering that as Bale enters this crucial period of his development, he hasn't scored a league goal for the club since a double against Wigan at the Lane on January 31, suggesting that comparisons with the consistently prolific Cristiano Ronaldo are somewhat premature.

For all his blistering wing play, a return of nine goals and 10 assists is hardly on the same level as the former Manchester United forward, who by the same stage in his career had already top-scored in the league with 31 goals and led United to Champions League glory and the Premier League title in 2007-08.

At his finest, Bale is a combination of power, pace and precision, but the end product is far too inconsistent at the moment for him to warrant a place in the starting line-ups of either Barcelona or Real Madrid - the two sides who reportedly covet his signature.

Hugging the touchline is where Bale is most effective and consistent and any hopes of occupying a free role should be put on the back-burner for the time being

He notably struggled to make much of an impact as Tottenham's form tailed off towards the end of last season and Redknapp's positional experiment cost not only the club a Champions League place, but the manager his job - hardly the hallmark of a supposed 'world-class' talent.

Villas-Boas is the antithesis of everything Redknapp had come to represent during his time at Spurs. He's methodical, he prepares his side with a fastidious attention to detail and is almost obsessed with the shape of the side and how they work off the ball.

In order to tap into Bale's undoubted potential and get the best out of him, the Portuguese has to make sure that he drills home the need for positional discipline. Hugging the touchline is where he is most effective and consistent at the moment and any hopes he may harbour of occupying a free role further down the line should be put on the back-burner for the time being.

Bale is certainly capable of getting there one day, possibly in the near future; but the lofty praise that he has received is in danger of going to his head. It appears that the only thing holding Bale back at the moment is himself and his inability to curb his own instincts.

After that performance against Inter, he said: "I don't take any interest in what is written about me because I think it's best to keep your feet on the ground, go to training and learn and also learn in the games every week."

Perhaps it's time to start heeding his own advice a little more.

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