Gareth Bale’s second coming at Tottenham has finally taken off while Willian has an assist in each of his last four Arsenal appearances… the duo have struggled this season but can they light up the north London derby?
- Gareth Bale scored two goals a piece against Burnley and Crystal Palace
- Willian has recorded assists against Benfica, Leicester, Burnley and Olympiacos
- The Tottenham and Arsenal stars may face each other in the north London derby
- Sportsmail looks at whether they could prove to be the difference on Sunday
Gareth Bale and Willian were perhaps deemed the most disappointing summer signings from any of the so-called ‘Top Six’ Premier League clubs at the midway point of the season.
The Welshman looked a distant figure from the star who had lit up White Hart Lane in the few seasons preceding his move to £86million move to Real Madrid in 2013.
Brazil international Willian’s move to Arsenal after leaving Chelsea appeared to represent an astute piece of business after two assists on his Premier League debut, but the majority of his Gunners career has been plagued by ineffectiveness throughout matches.
Gareth Bale and Willian have shown signs of improvement over recent weeks for their sides
However, the duo’s fortunes appear to have picked up in recent weeks, with Bale having recorded four goals and two assists in his last four top-flight matches, while Willian has notched an assist in each of his last four appearances across all competitions.
Madrid loanee Bale was an unused substitute in Spurs’ 2-0 victory against Arsenal at home in December, which represents one of Willian’s poorest displays since moving from west London to the north of the capital in the summer.
However, with Bale now back in form and Willian also showing signs of improvement ahead of the latest north London derby at the Emirates Stadium, Sportsmail looks at the numbers behind their recent upturn in form, and how they could affect Sunday’s encounter.
How has Bale turned it around?
Bale’s recent form is no doubt a move in the right direction having hit top goalscoring form, but it has not completely masked his underwhelming overall return in 2020-21 after his fanfare arrival.
Statistics highlight the struggles the 31-year-old has endured since his second Spurs debut in October following 11 games out with a knee injury, creating – as Sofascore show – just two big chances and averaging a goal every 100 minutes in the top flight.
Glenn Hoddle claimed at the end of last year the injury contributed to Bale feeling ‘unsure’ of his body, while Spurs boss Jose Mourinho recently admitted the forward had arrived at the club with ‘psychological scars’ which he has now come through.
That uncertainty appeared to play on his mind in the initial stages of the season, when he was nothing more than a peripheral figure in the squad.
Bale’s performances against Burnley and Crystal Palace have shown the swagger is back
In his first four Europa League games of the season, the reserved nature of his performances imbued with a lack of confidence – having sat on the Real Madrid bench for large parts of last season – was clear for all to see.
He created just two chances in the 253 minutes of game time he saw against LASK, Royal Antwerp and the two fixtures against Ludogorets, and the 10 shots that he did manage to let fly brought him no reward.
However, his last five Europa League games have brought three goals and one assist, and his two performances against Wolfsberger in the round of 32 – although hinting at only minor improvements – showed he has become more decisive and clinical.
He attempted just three shots against the Austrian outfit but ended up scoring two of them, despite his expected goals ratio of 0.62 being lower in those two games than in the aforementioned four group-stage matches.
His passing accuracy has also improved, with 92.6 per cent of passes finding their target against Wolsfberger as opposed to 83.3 per cent in the first four group-stage games, while creating five chances against the former compared with two across the latter.
He is now able to keep up with play and has got into much better positions on the pitch
Bale also appeared to be working slightly harder in terms of trying to win the ball back through challenges, making four tackles in the two legs against Wolfsberger, one more than he managed in the first four Europa League games.
The Real Madrid loanee’s Premier League statistics mirror similar improvements in his game, albeit his appearances in his first seven top-flight games of his second Spurs spell mostly came from the bench.
Just one Premier League goal – albeit a crucial one with the winner against Brighton- came from his first seven performances following his return. But two of his last three top-flight outings have seen him net a brace.
His expected goals ratio has consequently more than doubled from his first seven Premier League matches, rising from 1.02 to 2.16, demonstrating how he is managing to get on the end of better chances than earlier in the campaign.
His fantastic effort in off the post for his second goal against Burnley exuded confidence
That improvement is likely down to a better standard of fitness. His first goal against Burnley and both goals against Crystal Palace demonstrated that he is now able to keep up with the rapid nature of Spurs’ attacks, and combined with excellent positioning he has been on the end of crosses and headers across goal to tuck them away at the back post and in the centre of the box.
His passing accuracy is also up from 60 per cent to 78.9 per cent, as are the amount of crosses he has delivered in open play to a significant extent, showing that he is now more willing to try and create a chance than he perhaps was previously.
However, the similar nature of the other statistics suggests that the most important number comes towards the top of the table above.
Bale has started three of the last four top-flight matches after starting just twice in his first seven, and that has seemingly allowed confidence to return and his sharpness in decision making and in front of goal improve in abundance, just as his movement and finishes against Burnley and Crystal Palace demonstrated.
The swagger has returned to the Wales international’s game, most discernibly by the way he set himself and struck home a sweet curling effort off the post for his second against Burnley.
Only star duo Harry Kane and Son Heung-min have scored more league goals for Jose Mourinho’s men this season, and he could soon find himself in third position between the same duo for assists and chances created too if his improvement continues.
Bale only figured in a 26-minute cameo against Dinamo Zagreb on Thursday, managing one attempt and one key pass. But Mourinho admitted before the game he will have to manage his minutes to keep his momentum going, which he looks primed to do against Spurs’ arch rivals.
Bale was also on hand at the back-post and from point-blank range to score the chances created by Harry Kane
Has Willian turned it around too?
Much maligned by the fans given the start of his life at Arsenal, Mikel Arteta has not extracted the premium quality and seasoned product he believed he had acquired in the summer.
It all began well with two assists in the opening Premier League fixture against Fulham, but the next 11 top-flight fixtures yielded just one further assist.
The Brazil international appeared unwilling to play the risky pass and take players on when stationed out wide, leading to a complete lack of confidence and fears the Gunners had backed themselves into a corner with another Mesut Ozil-esque situation given his £200,00-per-week wages.
The 32-year-old was also providing little goal threat from the wide areas, which was only exacerbated by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette’s simultaneous loss of form in front of goal.
Willian managed just three assists and no goals from his first 12 top-flight games for Arsenal
The emergence of Emile Smith Rowe, the brilliance of Bukayo Saka and the loan arrival of Martin Odegaard saw Willian demoted to the bench from Boxing Day onwards, and while it could have signalled the beginning of the end for him so soon in his Arsenal career, the time away from the limelight appears to have benefitted him.
There was nothing spectacular about his pass to Kieran Tierney for the Scot’s crucial equaliser in their 3-2 win against Benfica in Athens last month to see them through to the last 16 of the Europa League.
But the confidence instilled in him by Arteta – who chose to send him on ahead of the more agile Gabriel Martinelli or Nicolas Pepe when Arsenal were chasing the game and required two goals to keep their season alive – appears to have sparked a little fire within him.
The Brazilian then delivered his best performance for the Gunners three days later at Leicester, setting up David Luiz’s headed equaliser from a free-kick before a cute ball allowed Pepe to tap home a third goal.
But it was his run from deep against Leicester that resulted in the penalty Alexandre Lacazette scored
The Gunners struggled to pressurise Burnley for the same period of time a week later and as a result Willian was not as effective at Turf Moor, but still ended up with an assist for Aubameyang’s opener.
Arsenal’s most recent European action saw a crucial intervention from Willian again, sending in a deep cross for Gabriel to meet with a towering header for a second away goal in their 3-1 win at Olympiacos.
And Opta’s statistics demonstrate not only what he has improved, but what else he requires to return to the sort of form that has made Bale the talking point at Spurs again and that made him one of Chelsea’s most outstanding players last season.
In his first 12 Premier League games for Arsenal, the Brazilian attempted just 10 dribbles, but that same category stands at eight already just from his outings against Benfica, Leicester and Burnley.
Only a quarter of those eight dribbles have been successful, but the ones that have been successful have crucially led to him being involved in goals being created.
Willian’s willingness to dribble more saw him set up Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at Burnley
It was his burst from inside his own half which led to Wilfried Ndidi’s handball being given as Leicester desperately tried to retreat, and a similar run saw Aubameyang able to cut inside and finish past Nick Pope at the near post at Burnley.
His passing accuracy is also greater than it was across the first twelve games, and he appears also to be attempting to mould his game around the Gunners’ strength.
Willian delivered 30 crosses from open play in his first twelve Premier League games, but has sent in just four in his last three games given the general lack of aerial threat Aubameyang and Lacazette provide in comparison to some of the league’s other top strikers.
His statistics in terms of assists and chances created make him the best of a bad bunch, with no one in Arteta’s squad managing more than his five Premier League assists this term, while only Bukayo Saka and Kieran Tierney have fathomed more chances than Willian’s 24.
However, the Brazil winger has by no means restored his game to the lofty heights of his peak at Chelsea, given his ongoing goal drought for the Gunners.
He attempted just one shot against Olympiacos and his recent performances do not suggest a first goal is imminent either, as he is currently on course to complete around the same number of shots as he did in his first 12 top-flight games, attempting just two in his last three league matches.
His expected goals ratio has also significantly decreased from 1.28 to just 0.16, suggesting he is not getting into many threatening positions in any case.
With the business end of the season now approaching, Arteta will be keen on expanding his goalscoring options beyond the current few, and Willian still has improvements to make in that area.
No Arsenal player has more top-flight assists this season, but Mikel Arteta needs more from the Brazilian in front of goal
Could either make an impact this Sunday?
Just as it appears in terms of their improvement this season, Bale is ahead of Willian when it comes to their performances over the years against the other north London side.
Welshman Bale was left on the bench by Mourinho in Spurs’ comfortable 2-0 victory at home in December, but has plenty of past success against the Gunners in his first spell at the former White Hart Lane.
The 31-year-old netted five goals in 10 appearances against what was then Arsene Wenger’s side, with his first coming with a fabulous free-kick in the 3-1 home defeat in 2007/08.
He scored a goal in each of the two north London derbies in his final season at Tottenham, including a sumptuous right-foot strike past Wojciech Szczesny in the 5-2 defeat at the Emirates Stadium before netting in a 2-1 home win.
Bale has scored five goals in 10 games against Arsenal, his first coming in September 2007
But the Welshman now appears to be building up a head of steam and given the way he has tormented Arsenal’s defences in the past he may well have come into some form at just the wrong time for Arteta.
The Gunners have been plagued by errors leading to goals in recent weeks – most recently Dani Ceballos’ error in Greece – and Bale has shown recently he has been ruthless in exploiting any opposition weaknesses.
Willian has a far more modest record against Spurs, the latest addition to which came for Arsenal in that December clash.
His final visit to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in the blue of Chelsea however reaped much greater rewards, netting both goals including a delicious curler in their 2-0 win their under Frank Lampard.
The Brazilian also netted a brace against Spurs in the 4-2 FA Cup semi-final victory but his only other top-flight contribution against them is another assist in a 2-2 home draw in 2015-16.
Willian has scored just two league goals against Spurs, both which came for Chelsea last term
Willian, however, answered the Gunners’ call with tidy, if not spectacular, displays at critical moments against Benfica and Olympiacos, and his confidence appears to have been slightly restored domestically too after his performance at the King Power Stadium.
Perhaps he is now ready to take the next step on his road to returning to form with a smart performance against his new club’s arch rivals.
Mourinho admitted however that he will do everything in his power to keep Bale’s momentum going until the end of the season.
Bale and Willian’s season so far represents a microcosm of the issues that have bedevilled both Tottenham and Arsenal at various stages of the campaign. But now both sides will hope their apparent return to form can inspire similar positive change for their sides domestically and in Europe.
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