By Ewan Roberts
It is hard to know what the white half of north London are more worried about: the impending threat of nuclear war and Kim Jong-un's itchy finger, or the injury Gareth Bale suffered in Tottenham’s 2-2 draw with Basel on Thursday night. Both feel like the end of the world.
The Welshman has been in exceptional form since the turn of the year and, crucially, Spurs have not won a match in which he has failed to score since December 29, when Aaron Lennon and a Carlos Cuellar own goal secured a 2-1 win away to Sunderland.
As such, the White Hart Lane outfit have been dubbed little more than a one-man team, clinging on to the coattails of a player that leads the charge to be crowned PFA Player of the Year.
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Adversity has accompanied the club for much of the season: Andre Villas-Boas had three games to save his job barely two months into his tenure, key players were sold in the summer, and injuries have stripped the squad of their best performers (from Younes Kaboul to Sandro). But they have survived, and fought, and even prospered.
The exhilarating football promoted under Harry Redknapp has gone - White Hart Lane is a less vibrant and appetising scene - but that expansive and often cavalier style has been replaced by pragmatism and an ability to grind out wins – no matter how ugly.
Villas-Boas and his side have made do throughout the season. Rewind to the start of December and the feeling among the Spurs faithful was similarly grim. Bale, not yet the force he has since become, hobbled off the Craven Cottage pitch clutching his hamstring with half-an-hour to play, and with Tottenham holding only a very narrow lead.
Within 15 minutes of his exit, two Jermain Defoe goals had guaranteed all three points and a 3-0 win against Fulham – it remains Spurs’ second-largest margin of victory in the league this season.
Next up was a trip to Goodison Park against top four-battling Everton. Optimism was low in the absence of Bale, but up until the 90th minute Tottenham were in charge and in the lead. Two quick-fire stoppage-time goals flipped the result – on that day it was the late substitution of Mousa Dembele that hurt Spurs, not their missing Welshman.
Somewhat surprisingly, Tottenham have the same win rate whether Bale plays or not (50 per cent), while they have, in fact, scored more goals per game when he is not in the side (1.66 with him compared to 1.88 without him).
It seems that Tottenham's problem is not so much how to play when Bale is absent, but how to play when he doesn’t score. His new role through the middle, though usually hugely profitable from a goalscoring perspective, can turn him into a burden for the rest of the team – especially when he fails to find the back of the net.
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Even before he was stretchered off against Basel, Bale had been having a miserable night. He fired just one effort on target and did not attempt a single through-ball, receiving a mere 55 touches of the ball against the Swiss side. Of the 10 outfield players that started the match, only Aaron Lennon (who came off injured after 24 minutes) and the frustrating Emmanuel Adebayor saw less of the ball.
There is an occasional naivety about Bale when deployed as a second striker. Previously, when out wide, space was manufactured for him by his team-mates – an overlap by the full-back, a quick switch of play, a decoy run – but room is less easily found in the hole, and Bale lacks the experience and know-how to find it for himself.
In the league this season, Bale has turned over possession of the ball with greater regularity than any other Tottenham player – only Defoe (43) comes close to matching the Welshman’s 50 turnovers – while he has also been dispossessed most often, too.
Villas-Boas tinkered with his system to maximise Bale’s goalscoring output – as exemplified by the number of shots he has taken (4.9 per match – the most of any Spurs player). The Portuguese had been putting all his eggs in a Bale-shaped basket, but when he hasn’t fired, the Bale-centric team has faltered. That, however, does not mean the set-up cannot be reijgged in his absence and Villas-Boas has already spoken of the squad’s “possibility to adapt”.
The 1-0 victory over Swansea in December highlights that Tottenham are not dependant on Bale. On that day Jan Vertonghen grabbed the decisive goal, and the centre-back has just been named the Player of the Month for March, only the 12th time in 173 attempts that a defender has claimed the prize.
A recurring theme of Tottenham's season has been an ability to endure hardship, to plough through setbacks, and to find unlikely saviours – whether it be the misfiring Emmanuel Adebayor bundling the ball in against Inter at the San Siro or the much-maligned Gylfi Sigurdsson equalising at Upton Park. On Sunday they must find inspiration from an unexpected source once more.
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