Friday 24 November 2017

Stephen Hunt: Whelan's spatial awareness key to hopes of shackling Wales' talisman Gareth Bale

Wales' Gareth Bale. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Wales' Gareth Bale. Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

When I was in my second Premier League season with Reading, playing well and in the Ireland squad, Tottenham were one of the teams sniffing around.

Nothing came of it, but there was definite interest and a couple of ideas were put to my agent. There was even talk of Spurs allowing Gareth Bale to leave in the opposite direction.

Well, what a lucky escape for Tottenham and Real Madrid when that deal fell through!

Spurs signed Bale from Southampton for his potential, which is what they have done with many young players. He hardly set White Hart Lane on fire in his first couple of seasons and was pretty much an inconsistent left-back.

And then Andre Villas-Boas played him on the left wing and in the free role in midfield. His career took off one night against Inter Milan when he scored a hat-trick playing in that free role. He showed that he had the capability to play at the next level. He had suddenly moved on from a player with potential.

Thanks to those three goals that night, and his non-stop running at the Milan defence, Bale became a player who no-one had really fancied into an outstanding Premier League star who was ready to set the world alight.

The key to Bale's success is his pace, and by playing regularly he enhanced that, building his confidence and adding key elements to his game. He gave everybody a perception he was the real deal.

Real Madrid signed him, and as Paul Pogba is discovering at Manchester United, being the world's most expensive player has its drawbacks. Every time you play, you will be reminded of that fee and whether you are giving value for money. Bale has lived up to his £80m and more.

Playing at Real Madrid is hard enough, and even tougher if you have that fee and Cristiano Ronaldo is king of the place and scoring unbelievable goals every week. Without the goals, Bale is arguably more effective than Ronaldo, but he has never struck me as the kind of person who strives the limelight. He's happy letting Ronaldo get on with it.

Bale wants the free-kicks and the goals and he'll still provide the assists for Ronaldo. I think Ronaldo likes that in Bale and he does respect him. Ronaldo loves the goals and the records, Bales loves creating his own history within a team, which is why he fits in so well with this Wales squad.

Bale is as important for Wales as Ronaldo is for Portugal. They have the same presence, but you just sense there is a different relationship between the two star men and their international team-mates. It is not all about Gareth Bale. It's about Wales and the team and the supporters.

The Wales players clearly love him, and not just because he's the arguably the best player they've ever had and he has changed Welsh football, and their lives. But because he's a great lad.

He might have the ponytail and look like a world superstar, but you get to know people when you're just sitting around the dinner table having a laugh and being yourself. That's when you earn the respect of your team-mates.

He's one of those players you want to succeed. He's not a prima donna, just a very good footballer who has worked hard and turned his body into a machine, and not got carried away by his success at Real Madrid, or in leading Wales to places and occasions they couldn't believe. You can't imagine him turning down many autographs or selfies.

However, the film they released about the Wales team and the Euros is a different story. I am not happy about that. Maybe put it out on dvd, but to have a big premiere and the red carpet treatment? For a team that finished fourth? Even Leicester City haven't brought out a film yet, and that is arguably the greatest football story ever. As a player, I would have felt a tad embarrassed by the whole thing.

Bale has always been an athlete and he doesn't have Ronaldo's quick feet and tricks. He finds space other players can't find because he is not so good in tight situations. On Friday, Ireland need to keep the game compact and make sure there are no green fields for Bale to run into, or three-yard areas for him to win his headers, which is another great strength.

With a 60,000 fans and all that is at stake in this derby, the adrenalin will be pumping through both teams, so to an extent, form, fitness, even confidence go out of the window when the game starts. But with so few games behind him, Bale might not have the sharpness and fitness to constantly find those spaces.

Bale plays in a floating role, so there is no point going man to man on him. It's a shame to an extent that he won't stick to playing on the left, so we could see a one-on-one tussle with Seamus Coleman, who is Ireland's best player, and the best right-back in the Premier League. They'll still have their moments.

I would imagine Glenn Whelan playing the role which closes any gaps for Bale. The players around him will provide him simple information to keep an eye on him, and the back four will be communicating 'left shoulder, right shoulder' whenever Bale moves. Whelan's spatial awareness will be vital to keep Wales and Bale away from our goal.

Bale has three major strengths: his pace, his left foot in any area and his aerial threat if you give him the space anywhere on the pitch.

Sometimes, it doesn't matter how good or ineffective he has been for 89 minutes or how you've negated those three strengths. Give him half a hard in the 90th minute, and he will win a game for Wales.

The free role Chris Coleman gives Bale absolves him of defensive duties, so he is not going to harry defenders all the time, especially if he wants to preserve his energy. But having a luxury player like that requires hard work from the rest of the team, and the Wales players always put a shift in.

The tale of the tape in the two teams is very similar. Players in and out of form with their club teams, or coming back from injury or suspension. No one has got the Premier League buzzing. But that does not matter on Friday night.

I have a feeling Aiden McGeady is going to have a major say in the outcome of this game. He is arguably in the form of his career and Martin O'Neill likes him. He will be keeping a close eye on McGeady this week, and deciding how and when he will be at his most effective.

Sunday Indo Sport

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