Gareth Bale is coming of age and that's bad news for England at Euro 2016
Gareth Bale is coming of age. The Wales superstar is emerging as a leader off the pitch as well as on the field. It might come at just the wrong time for Roy Hodgson and England.
The 26 year old has had a remarkable influence on games with his direct running and powerful shooting, but the Real Madrid forward has been a largely ineffectual presence off it. He carries none of the preening arrogance of Cristiano Ronaldo, his club teammate. He is quiet, deferential and prefers to go home rather than enjoying the nightlife and spending his time in the spotlight.
That is why it came as a surprise when Bale was so outspoken about England, criticizing their overblown expectations and comparing the team spirit of Hodgson's squad unfavorably to the mood in the Wales camp. It marks a significant change in demeanor for the man from Cardiff.
He has never been a strong character in the dressing room. At the Bernabeu, it sometimes feel as if the Welshman fades into the background. Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the dominant figures at Real. The Portuguese attacker is the club's best player, still a talisman even though his talents are beginning to slowly wane. Sergio Ramos is the other big presence, the focal point for the Spanish players. Bale belongs to neither clique in part because of his personality and partly because his language skills don't reflect his three years in Madrid. He is most comfortable around Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, both of whom are able to converse in English.
Even when he was unhappy with his role in the Real side, Bale never made his feelings clear to Carlo Ancelotti, his manager at the time. Instead, it took a call from his agent to Florentino Perez, the Real president, to express the player's dissatisfaction.
Meanwhile, Bale feels comfortable on international duty. In the Wales camp, he has allies. Taking up the mantle of leadership has surprised some of those who know him but it marks a huge step in his development. Hodgson rose to Bale's comments, calling them "disrespectful," but the England manager would be better off focusing on stopping the Welsh flyer instead. Overall, the England squad has significantly more talent available than that of Chris Coleman, the Wales manager, but Bale is arguably the best player in both squads.
Coming up with a plan to disrupt Bale's attacking instincts will be key to England's progress in the competition. Hodgson's midfield need to stop the former Tottenham Hotspur man's runs at the source because he gathers pace as he drives forward, and England will fear him surging into the areas protected by Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill. If Bale gets into shooting zones on the edge of the box, Wales will have every opportunity to produce an upset.
England's aim will be to drive Bale wide, direct him into areas where he will get fewer sights of goal and force him into passing. Wayne Rooney, Adam Lallana and Dele Alli will need to start this process early. If Eric Dier is detailed to pick up the Welsh superstar in more advanced positions, it will be too late.
Ideally, Hodgson will want his side to force Bale onto the right wing and his weaker right foot. If he goes left, the plan will be to force him out as near to the touchline as possible. They will need to avoid giving away fouls on the edge of the penalty area, too. These days Bale is more deadly from 25 yards out than his club colleague Ronaldo.
There are few others that Hodgson will fear in the Wales team. Aaron Ramsey has a creative spark that supplements Bale's game-changing ability, but overall the Welsh look a little workmanlike. They have character, though, and will push England hard, keep things tight and hope that their best player can lead them to victory.
Bale is emerging as a personality and defeating England would underline his progression. What we have seen in the run-up to the all-Britain Group B clash is more than the cliché of mind games. It is the flowering of a world-class player into a leader who can rally a team and a nation. Bale's moment has come and it might just land the killer blow on Hodgson's Euro dreams.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.