Four goals in his last three Premier League matches has built the hysteria around Gareth Bale to such an extent that there were people genuinely asking if Bale was as good as the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on Saturday afternoon. As if news had filtered across to the continent of a young rival, Ronaldo coolly slotted in a hat trick on Saturday night to remind everyone exactly how high the level Bale aspires to is.
But even keeping your feet on the ground, it's true to say that Bale is an astonishing player, and one of very few in the league who can produce real moments of magic that lift everyone watching. It's also fair to say that Bale is still improving, and this season has shown him take on a different, more Ronaldo like role for Tottenham Hotspur.
Last season Bale was superb for Spurs, scoring nine times and adding ten assists as Harry Redknapp's side claimed fourth spot in the league. The Welshman was played as a fairly conventional winger in a 4-4-1-1 system, although it's worth noting that there were plenty of occasions when Bale would cut inside.
This year Bale's position has advanced slightly, so he now forms part of a band of three attacking midfielders behind a lone striker. Given Andre Villas-Boas' preference for a 4-3-3 system at Porto, there's every chance that Bale could end up moving even further forward for Spurs as the left flank of a three man attack, and this season has shown that he is more than capable of taking on the role.
Whilst last year Bale produced more assists than goals, this season the stats are very different, as Bale has scored 13 times whilst only providing two assists. The stats about his general play also read more like a striker than a midfielder, especially when compared to last season.
Bale has already taken 102 shots in 22 appearances this year, putting 44.1% on target and attempting to score once every 19.9 minutes. Last season Bale took 136 shots in the 36 games he played, getting 32.4% on target and shooting once every 24.9 minutes. Bale is now taking more shots and getting a far greater percentage of them on target. Perhaps the most telling stat of all is that Bale has converted 12.7% of his shots into goals this season, compared to 6.6% last season. Bale is also making fewer passes at a lower success rate in the final third than last year, again suggesting he is operating in a more advanced area and looking to get more shots away.
Bale has improved his attacking play this year, and has become a far more attacking player in general. Andre Villas-Boas' move away from a traditional four man midfield has freed Bale up to focus on his forward play, and given Bale's ability in front of goal, you would expect that move forward to continue if Villas-Boas eventually switches to a 4-3-3. At this stage it might be worth remembering Bale started at Spurs as a left back.
image: © andybrannan