On his best days Gareth Bale could be a Pixar movie creation.
With his superhero quiff and zippy moves he induces smiles of admiration and fear in rival managers, as if a screen figure has invaded the real game of blood and bone.
Before his Chelsea team travelled to Spurs a fortnight ago, Carlo Ancelotti wore the grin of one happy to go along with the idea of Bale as unplayable attacker. For our amusement the Chelsea manager took pity on Paulo Ferreira, the latest right-back to accept the fairground challenge of stopping the young Welsh winger.
With the mention of Bale's name this winter there has been a hint of what batsmen felt facing the great West Indies bowling attack or an English back probably experienced before for an 80-minute duet with Jonah Lomu. These are hammed-up responses, obviously, but rare is the British footballer who can generate anxiety and delight together. "Roll up, roll up" is not a cry we have heard too often in a Premier League season of few star turns, but Bale draws neutrals to the screen as an entertainment all by himself.
None of the other names advanced as player-of-the-year-so-far can beat the revelatory force of Bale's presence in an improving Tottenham side. His emergence at outside-left offers proof that young, potential-rich players tend to need a buoyant working atmosphere to fulfil their own promise.
Individual talent brings success, but success in turn hastens the development of individual talent, especially when self-expression is encouraged by an adventurous manager: in this case Harry Redknapp. Wasted talent is worse than no talent at all. Bale was not squandering his gifts, exactly, but a severe downturn in his career at left-back threatened to consign him to the dump of youngsters who had failed to progress beyond precocity. The Football League is peppered with big-club discards who trained off around the age of 20.
For many there is a choice that becomes apparent only when the opportunity to take the right one has already passed. Too late they realise that only by applying their talents consistently and dedicating themselves to that single task can they hope to spend five or 10 years at a top-five club.
This is the gulf Manchester United's Anderson was slipping down until a switch clicked in his brain and he added dynamism and thrust to his cosy 10-yard passing game. Wingers confront this dilemma head on. Think of David Bentley, Jermaine Pennant and even Aaron Lennon. Decisive wide play with a good final outcome is highly visible and easy to rate. The converse is equally true. Fliers who strike the first defender with a cross or hide from the action are instantly conspicuous.
Bale has marched through this critical minefield to become the latest in a distinguished lineage of Welsh wingers, from Cliff Jones to Ryan Giggs. Jones, a touchline terror for Spurs from 1957-68, says: "He is without doubt one of the best in the world and I have no doubt he will become the first Welsh player to win 100 caps. He's only 21 and he's got so much in front of him. In fact he'll only get better and better."
The halfway prize for excitement-generation is easily bestowed on Bale by virtue of his assault on Maicon, the unofficial best right-back in the world, home and away to Internazionale, as well as his spearing at White Hart Lane of Werder Bremen's Clemens Fritz: a defender of high repute. To cause so much damage in Champions League action earns extra points, and Bale has been equally effective in domestic competition, especially with his bursts from the halfway line.
Across north London, at Arsenal, Samir Nasri's feet are dancing to a hotter rhythm. Educated in wide positions by Arsène Wenger, Nasri is graduating to a more central role. Wenger possesses plenty of artists who can decorate a match but too few who can win him one that really counts. If Nasri is advancing from the first group to the second the title race will benefit. But Bale is in another category. He can destroy teams by himself. Nasri can unlock, Bale can overwhelm.
Falling into conversation with Redknapp after Tottenham's victory over Inter at White Hart Lane, Luís Figo, one of the most creative wingers of the postwar era, said of Bale: "He's just amazing, amazing. He killed us twice." Squads of analysts will develop smothering strategies, which Bale must learn to elude, and at 21 he will encounter plenty of problems with the most experienced defenders (Everton's Phil Neville was the victor in their recent struggle) but at the midway point he has fired in more crosses than any Premier League winger and is completing his own swift moves with emphatic finishing.
A personal favourite is his trick of knocking the ball beyond a full-back and then running round him to meet it on the other side. This, and other sadistic japes, will invite retribution, often shin high, but Cristiano Ronaldo offers a template for the winger strong enough to withstand unpunished aggression in the English game. To combine scorching pace, dribbling, nastily precise crossing and shooting ability is a rare blend of attributes, which is why Europe's elite now covet Theo Walcott's fellow graduate from the Southampton academy.
Redknapp thinks he will end up where he started, and underachieved, at left-back, because a defensive starting point will offer him a longer run-up. His judgment is to be respected, but the neutral thrillseeker will not want to watch Bale spend too much time grappling with opposition wingers in his own penalty area when he could be slicing past them at the other end.
His universal appeal is to be found in the liberation of his gift, through his own confidence and audacity, which we can all relate to when we study any young person with talent, and wonder what will come of it.
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