A popular return to Tottenham awaits Gareth Bale as he gets set to end his Real Madrid nightmare temporarily. This is his chance at redemption
It’s the summer of 2013. Gareth Bale has just enjoyed the season of his life, taking the Premier League by storm yet again. This time, a stunning haul of 21 goals in 33 outings has catapulted him to the status of being the best player in the division. Crowned the PFA Player of the Year, many more honours follow suit for the Welshman, who now has the world at his feet.
However, Tottenham Hotspur – the club where he has risen to superstardom – have missed out on a place in the 2013/14 UEFA Champions League. Seemingly ready and primed to take the next step in his footballing evolution, Bale breaks yet another record.
As September began, the world woke up to greet the (then) most expensive player in the world, as Real Madrid break the bank to sign the prodigious full-back-turned-winger. He become the first player to be signed for a nine-figure sum. What subsequently unfolded was a story of triumph and despair.
Bale dominated Europe with Real Madrid, scoring in multiple Champions League finals, one of which might well be the best ever Champions League goal in the eyes of many. Winning a total of 13 trophies with Los Blancos, all while playing a major role in many-a-triumphant campaign, Bale’s star rose to heights only he could have perhaps fathomed.
With the highs, however, came some crushing lows. Just when it looked like Bale was set to become the heir to Cristiano Ronaldo’s throne at Real Madrid, an injury crisis struck. That crisis continues to plague his career till date. Bale’s relationship with the Real Madrid fans is non-existent, which is also the case when it comes to his equation with Zinedine Zidane.
It was not always like this, but it has come to this. That he infamously unfurled a banner that aimed a dig on Real Madrid while on international duty with Wales was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. And as the 2019/20 season reached its curtain call, Bale was seen spending more time indulging in animated antics on the bench than rake in the minutes on the pitch.
Things finally seemed to have reached a head when Zidane chose to leave Bale behind at Madrid for the Champions League Round of 16 second leg clash against Manchester City because he “preferred not to play”. Something had to give and it looks like it finally has.
Tottenham Hotspur and the Return of the Prodigal Son
This is not the first time that Bale’s marriage with Real Madrid has come under a cloud of looming divorce. Back when the curtains were falling down on the 2017/18 season, Bale hinted at a possible exit and understandably so. This was when he had experienced a frustrating exile from the first-team, perhaps for the first time in his career.
When Zidane needed him, though, Bale delivered and how. Coming off the bench in the Champions League final, Bale scored a match-winning brace including that outrageous overhead goal, as Real Madrid completed an unprecedented three-peat. Had his time at the Santiago Bernabeu ended then, it would have surely been a fond farewell; a relatively amicable separation.
Fast forward two years. Bale and Real Madrid could not be more at loggerheads with each other; the fans have chastised him to no end on a number of occasions; neither Zidane nor he could care less about a lack of minutes on the pitch. Things have reached a point of no return, but blaming just one party would be rather harsh. After all, it takes two to tango.
In an interview with Sky Sports, Bale admitted that he attempted to leave last summer, when an opportunity to move to China presented itself. He would be left exasperated after Real Madrid blocked the transfer. His own conduct post that frustrating instance has been far from professional. And so, it just had to end; Real Madrid had to cut their losses; Bale needed a change of scenery.
Tottenham offered both parties a way out. The north Londoners gave Bale the chance to return to the place where he is adored to this day. On the other hand, Real Madrid, much like Manchester United last summer, have been handed the opportunity to finally get the disgruntled superstar out of the Bernabeu, even if temporarily so. Meanwhile, Jose Mourinho finally gets the player he has wanted to manage for nearly a decade now.
"He was born to play for Spurs!"
Tottenham fans welcome Gareth Bale back 🙌
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) September 18, 2020
Bale, Tottenham and Real Madrid will now hope that he can turn the clock back, rediscover that explosiveness that earned him the status of being one of the best players in the world and simply find that desire to turn up on the pitch and give it his all; reignite the fire that has long been extinguished.
If so, Los Blancos could finally get Bale off their books, Spurs might have their prodigal son back for good and Bale may have that zeal to perform at club level once again. But, at 31, does Bale really have much left in him, considering the factors that have led to his evident decline?
Wales. Spurs. Golf. In That Order?
Make no mistake about it. Bale is not the player who dominated Spanish and European football in the first half of his stint with Real Madrid. He is not even the player who was the best in the Premier League when he completed his dream move to the Spanish capital. In the nightmare that has unravelled over the last couple of years, Bale has regressed considerably. So what basis is there to suggest that he could be due a much-needed renaissance?
To begin with the Santiago Bernabeu had become a ground that festered a lot of toxicity in him. The 31-year-old himself has admitted, while talking on the Erik Anders Lang show, that his confidence would sap completely when he came at the receiving end of jeers and boos from the Real Madrid faithfuls, that he just would not understand such behaviour from the fans when he needed a shot in the arm instead.
“This is the biggest question! I just don’t get it. Because if you’re not having a good time on the pitch, you would expect your fans to get behind you and try and make you do better because that will make them happy. But it seems to be they do the opposite. They just whistle you, which makes you feel worse, so you lose your confidence.”
“So, I might have just missed an easy chance to score a goal. And the whistles come and you think: ‘My confidence is already down because I missed an easy goal and now it’s just going even more down.’ And the next time a chance comes the goal seems tiny. It’s like a putt. The goal just gets smaller.”
Gareth Bale opened up about getting whistled by his own Real Madrid fans.
(via Erik Anders Lang/YouTube) pic.twitter.com/PjU3sE4irk
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) August 3, 2020
In contrast, Bale enjoys a far healthier rapport with the Tottenham fans, for whom he remains a cult hero to this day. With the supporters egging him on instead of booing him at every step, Bale gets the incentive to get back on top of his game. In the aforementioned Sky Sports interview, he pointed towards the unconditional support from Wales fans being a source of positivity.
He said, “I think everyone knows how much I love coming away with Wales. It’s nice to be back at a place where you are a little bit more appreciated and supported by your fans no matter what.” A similar scenario should ensue over the course of the 2020/21 season, judging by the reception he got from the Tottenham fans after arriving at the club’s training ground to complete his loan move.
Bale is essentially getting the chance to start afresh, put his frustrations pertaining to Zidane and the Real Madrid fans behind him. That, in itself, should be a huge weight lifted off his shoulders. And, even though the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is not quite the White Hart Lane he made his stomping ground, he would be in familiar surroundings; surroundings where he will receive the appreciation he so desires at club level.
In the same Sky Sports interview, Bale also said that he retains the motivation to play football, iterating, “I want to play football, I am still motivated to play football, so I guess it’s on the club. I am only 31 still but I feel I am in great shape still and feel like I have a lot to give. We will see what happens.”
However, the game is not won on sentiments alone. While the positive vibes coming from in and around the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium should light the fire and desire in him again, he will still need to rediscover the performance levels that have been missing from his game for some time. So, is there anything to indicate that Bale could be the right fit in Jose Mourinho’s system?
Mourinho’s style of play, in its current state, relies heavily on directness rather than careful and methodical build-up. That falls right in the Gareth Bale ballpark. At his best, both at Tottenham and Real Madrid, Bale was a delight to watch when he had the ball at his feet; when he got the chance to run at the defenders, often leaving them on their backsides.
The Gareth Bale 2012-13 starter pack. Not long now. 🔜 pic.twitter.com/7LgtRH0cx9
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 18, 2020
That quality has slowly disappeared from his game in recent years, with Bale attempting fewer take-ons with each passing season. That, in turn, has affected his goals tally, which has taken a major hit as well. At Tottenham, Bale should also once again have the freedom to roam in the final third, seeing as Matt Doherty will often have the responsibility of providing width on the right wing.
In comparison, Bale became increasingly restricted at Real Madrid, where he was often rooted to the right flank whenever deployed from that wing. At his peak, however, he could often be seen exploiting the space vacated by Karim Benzema when the Frenchman dropped deep to link up play.
A similar scenario could ensue at Tottenham, where Mourinho tasks Kane with the responsibility of linking up play by going out of position, leaving ample space for Bale to potentially run into. As a result, Spurs’ cumulative attacking output should, in theory, improve, as is desperately sought at present.
Finally, Bale will need to have the required sharpness and match fitness if he is to play a pivotal role for Wales at the European Championships next summer. While his place in the national side is not under threat, he will need to be playing week in week out at Tottenham in order to deliver the goods at international level too, if his displays in the recent UEFA Nations League games are anything to go by.
For that, his love of golf might have to be put on the back burner for some time. Wales. Spurs. Golf. In that order? Only time will tell if Bale does retain that motivation to play football at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium over the entirety of the 2020/21 season. And therein lies a potential caveat to a revival.
A Possible Bogey
With all the positives that come with Bale, there will also be a fair share of negatives bringing the feel-good effect down. The key for Tottenham and Jose Mourinho will be to ensure the positives far outweigh the negatives in order to get the best out of the Welsh superstar.
To begin with, Mourinho needs to keep Bale as far away from the golf course as possible at the important junctures of the season to avoid any bogeys and get his side closer to its objectives. At the same time, it will also be interesting to see if Bale has his attitude sorted, if he still has the the willingness to play the game at a high level.
While the 31-year-old has insisted that the motivation to play football still remains high, it will be up to him to prove that those words actually hold weight and are not hollow claims. He would hope that a change of scenery and a return to his famous hunting place might help him answer the naysayers.
The big “if” for Bale, though, will be to get over his injury nightmares of the past half-a-decade or so. By his own admission, he is in “great shape” and is raring to go. However, it is already being claimed that the 31-year-old has a knee injury which is set to rule him out for four weeks.
Thus, Mourinho will need to manage his minutes smartly instead of throwing him into the deep end week in week out by using the Lucas Mouras and Steven Bergwijns at his disposal. If Bale and Mourinho work together to get on top of the uncertainties, there will be no stopping him. If not, there might not be a way back for Bale in the career that will remain ahead of him next summer.
When Bale completes his loan move to Tottenham, there sure is going to be a sense of relief at Real Madrid from everyone involved. However, history will always remain proof of the fact that Bale has a special place in the annals of the Spanish heavyweights. What now lies in front of Bale is an opportunity, as Alexis Sanchez had at Inter Milan last season.
The opportunity is to get back on top of his game at a club where he is a cherished figure and a club that he himself loves dearly. The opportunity, consequently, is to then carry forward the momentum built over the course of the 2020/21 season to inspire Wales to another memorable European campaign. The ball is now in his golf course. Can he swing it in the right direction to score a hole in one?