After an already astonishing season so far, Tottenham Hotspur's Welsh superstar, Gareth Bale, this week scored his ninth goal in seven matches for club and country. Next in his sights are Arsenal.
The current standout British talent on Monday scored a sensational double against West Ham United to mean he has been increasingly in the limelight. In Sunday's North London derby, Arsenal will try to keep him quiet and win a game which is crucial to their hopes of a place in the Premier League's top four.
But how do you stop Bale? He is a mixture of phenomenal athletic power and stamina, blistering pace, aerial finesse, superb match awareness and clinical goalscoring from long or short range.
Amid Tottenham's struggles for goals from elsewhere in their team, Bale is earning vital points to create talk of second place in the table. His form means he is even being compared to the world idols of Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona's Lionel Messi.
All attention will consequently again be on the £50million-rated 23-year-old against Arsenal at the weekend and Sky Sports looks at the wide-ranging threats he poses to opponents.
Don't offer space
Preventing Bale from having room, the fuel on which he operates, is easier said than done. Teams who have succeeded in keeping him quiet in the past have done so by suffocating his space on the pitch. This has been achieved by solid tactical governance and removing any gaps between the midfield and defence. Whether starting on the wings or in a central position, Bale floats around the field. It appears his preferred method of finding space is to move through midfield in a wide area and then subtly drift centrally between opponents' full-back and centre-back before collecting the ball - as he did when scoring against Arsenal at Emirates Stadium last November in Spurs' ultimate 5-2 defeat. The key for Arsenal is to therefore ensure there are tight lines - both in terms of communication and organisation - between midfield and defence, with men behind the ball, to prevent Bale from getting up a head of steam. West Ham did not leave space behind their defence but their problem appeared to be that players did not know whether to commit to going tight on Bale when he drifted. This is underlines the importance of communication for Arsenal. Playing a left-footed full-back at right-back and vice versa can also be successful so the defender is on his strongest foot if Bale attempts to cut inside from the flank. Bale can then be forced wide, where, although he may still cross, he cannot score himself.
Manchester United and Everton are among the teams in past seasons who have opted to double up against Bale in wide areas. This proved successful but can be overcome with his new licence to roam, which allows him to move into other areas of the pitch. West Ham failed to address this and Bale managed 66 touches of the ball on Monday. A solution for Arsenal could therefore be to opt for a man-marking strategy. There has been a growing trend for Premier League clubs to revert to this tactic against key men, with United's Phil Jones recently shadowing Everton's Marouane Fellaini. Whether Arsenal are brave enough to adopt this tactic remains to be seen but it could be vital this weekend, although it can of course open opportunities for other players. Selecting the man who has the pace, power and stamina to man mark Bale is the crucial decision.
|Premier League 2012/13||Gareth Bale|
|Minutes On Pitch||2,024|
|Mins per goal||135|
|Shots On Target||51|
|Shots Off Target||39|
|Chances created (inc. Assists)||56|
|Mins per chance created||36|
|Pass Completion %||78%|
|Dribbles & Runs||111|
|Dribble Completion %||45%|
As Bale demonstrated with two goals in Tottenham's Europa League last 32 first-leg win over Lyon earlier in February, he can be deadly from set-pieces. He has offered a clue to Arsenal and opponents in the past, saying of his free-kicks: "I usually aim for the top half of the goal. But if I am nearer the goal, I will go low and hard." It is therefore important for Arsenal to have their walls well prepared and disciplined on the training pitch. There needs to be a clear message on whether the wall will jump or stay grounded, depending on the range of the free-kick. But the wall can also at times be used as a tool by Bale to disguise his free-kicks. Perhaps if a free-kick is at medium range, Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny could be courageous and innovative and decide not to have a wall.
Cut off the service
Bale cannot do as much damage to Arsenal if he does not have the ball. That was West Ham manager Sam Allardyce's plan before Monday night's game but his players could not complete the job. If Arsenal can prevent the likes of Scott Parker, Mousa Dembele and Lewis Holtby from feeding Bale the ball from central midfield, they are half way to stopping the danger. But this requires Arsenal to play a full and high line of defence and that needs bravery, organisation and fitness. Stopping crosses from winger Aaron Lennon and full-backs Kyle Walker and Benoit Assou-Ekotto is also important, as Bale is superb in the air. Ultimately, it again comes down to the issue of preventing Tottenham from having space as a team.