But then, with three minutes remaining of Spurs' 2-0 win over West Ham, their final game of 2009, Assou-Ekotto collected a groin strain that sidelined him for two months. Bale started the next game, and then didn't miss a single minute of the Premier League action in 2010. This was the definition of a breakthrough year.
Bale's initial eight starts were at left-back, where he was particularly impressive in a 2-0 victory over Fulham, and he scampered forward to create the opener for Jermain Defoe in a 3-0 victory win at Wigan. When Assou-Ekotto returned, Bale pushed forward and became Spurs' regular left-sided midfielder, and from that advanced position he was sensational, collecting the man-of-the-match award in 2-1 victories over both Arsenal and Chelsea within the space of four days in April, then picking up Player of the Month too. Almost overnight, Bale had gone from a bad-luck charm to the Premier League's most dangerous winger.
At this stage, 4-4-2 was considered almost dead at the highest level, with the Big Four all playing either 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 in big matches. But Tottenham's victories over Arsenal and Chelsea demonstrated that the system was perfectly viable when used correctly - they didn't engage their opponents in a posession battle, and instead played on the counter-attack. Their defending, meanwhile, was impressively flexible: against Arsenal they played deep and narrow to prevent their north London rivals playing through-balls, while against Chelsea they played higher up the pitch to force Didier Drogba away from goal. They compensated for their numerical disadvantage in midfield with strikers Jermain Defoe and Roman Pavlyuchenko dropping onto the opposition's holding player. Going forward, it was classic 4-4-2: attack directly, get the ball wide, cross.
That approach was particularly obvious in the victory over Arsenal, who lived up to the cliche of 'trying to walk the ball into the net', their wide players Samir Nasri and Tomas Rosicky unable to thread the ball between defenders. Debutant Danny Rose's stunning volleyed opener meant Arsenal had to take the game to Spurs, and Bale proved a constant counter-attacking threat, adding the crucial second goal. He was even better against Chelsea, with Tottenham constantly finding him on the run and also sending goal-kicks towards him to take advantage of his aerial power. After Defoe opened the scoring from the spot, Bale surprised Chelsea right-back Paulo Fereira by cutting inside before firing home with his right foot to put Spurs 2-0 ahead. Ferreira had a nightmare afternoot and was replaced by Branislav Ivanovic at half-time. Bale continued to threaten, however, and John Terry was later dismissed for scything down the Welshman.
A few weeks later Tottenham's memorable victory at Manchester City secured fourth place, in what was essentially a 4-4-2 versus 4-4-2 battle. Roberto Mancini used Carlos Tevez dropping off Emmanuel Adebayor, while Redknapp used a classic little-and-large partnership of Defoe and Peter Crouch. But whereas Mancini's wingers drifted in-field with right-footed Craig Bellamy on the left and left-footed Adam Johnson on the right, Spurs streched the play with Bale and Aaron Lennon hugging the touchlines. 'That's one of my defining matches as a manager, because of the way we played,' Redknapp recalled. 'I decided that it didn't matter that we were the away team. This was a Cup Final, one-off, and we were going to go for it.'
Bale and Lennon were both outstanding - they were better than City's wide pairing at protecting their fullb-backs and also more dangerous in posession. Assou-Ekotto and Bale were rampant down the left, and twice their combination play should have put Spurs ahead; first Bale released Assou-Ekotto on the overlap and the Cameroonian delivered a teasing ball across the six-yard box that Defoe and Crouch couldn't reach, before Bale crossed from a similar position and Crouch headed straight at the goalkeeper. Eventually Crouch headed the winner, after a deflected cross from makeshift right-back Younes Kaboul. But the major difference was the nature of the wingers. Both Adebayor and Crouch were target men who thrived on crosses, but only Spurs' pairing provided them. 'As a striker, it's a dream to have Bale on the left and Lennon on the right,' Crouch said. 'You just have to get yourself in the box and you know, nine times out of ten, they will get the right cross in for you.' It was reminiscent of Les Ferdinand talking about David Ginola and Keith Gillespie - Tottenham were the new Entertainers.