Gareth Bale, once the assumed heir to Cristiano Ronaldo’s throne at Real Madrid, is now at risk of becoming an afterthought. Acquired from Tottenham in 2013 for a then-record transfer fee, Bale has only topped 30 La Liga appearances once in four seasons for Real Madrid. True, he has been as good as advertised when healthy, but with his health such a question mark from year to year and with Madrid’s roster brimming with great attacking talent, it might be too late for Bale to solidify a starring role for himself at Real.
And it looks like things are only getting worse for the Welsh winger. Not only do Real have world-class talent like Isco and Marco Asensio currently gunning for Bale’s starting spot, the club is also favorites to sign yet another younger, even more ridiculously skilled attacker in Kylian Mbappé. If Madrid want to pare down their squad some to make room for the Mbappé, Bale’s the best bet to go.
Again, Bale’s been amazing when healthy, and he’s only 28 years old, but with his injury history and the uncertainty about just how good he still is after all that time spent out, Bale is the closest thing this stacked roster has to dead weight. And yet despite the doubts about his health, if Bale does go anywhere, it will most likely only be if someone ponies up a staggering amount of cash.
The only realistic suitors for Bale’s services are teams back where he came from in the Premier League. The most notable name in the hunt is Manchester United, whose manager, José Mourinho, has openly stated that, if Real Madrid are looking to sell, the Red Devils would be more than happy to bring Bale in. More speculatively, Chelsea also seem to be in the market for some new signings, and some reports claim they’ve offered Real as much as £90 million for Bale.
(It’s tough to read into Real’s plans with Bale based on his start in today’s European Super Cup. Whether that means Real actively want to keep him or if they’re just playing hardball by showing United and Chelsea that they can still hold on to Bale if they want is yet to be determined.)
But based on Bale’s recent years, £90 million looks like a ridiculous price to pay. In the last two seasons with Madrid, Bale has missed a total of 44 games, played in only 56, and has seen his influence in Madrid’s system gradually erode away while also being replaced by the more reliable younger guys who’ve filled in during his time out. Neither United nor Chelsea are shy about paying big money for big talents—Manchester shelled out £75 million for striker Romelu Lukaku this window while the Blues already gave Madrid close to £80 million for Álvaro Morata. Still, both of those players are safer bets to produce goals (or at least make it onto the pitch consistently) than the fragile Bale.
At his best, though, Gareth Bale can still do things on the pitch that few others can. He was by far the most dominant and exciting player on Wales’s thrilling Euro 2016 team, and was able to single-handedly dominate matches with his terrifying mix of blistering speed, ingenious movement, and deadly finishing.
That version of Bale walks into every single starting XI in the world. But whether Bale can still hit that level of peak performance over an entire season (or at all) is a real question, and that’s the reason why he’s reportedly on the shopping block with so few potential suitors.
In terms of hypothetical fit, Bale could integrate with either of the two EPL clubs interested in him pretty seamlessly. Chelsea, for example, are already strong on the wings, but Gareth Bale in his ideal form is an improvement over Pedro and Willian. Line up a healthy Bale on the right with Morata in the middle and Hazard on the opposite flank, and Chelsea would immediately have one of if not the scariest forward line in England.
United’s attack doesn’t have any incumbent Bale would have to worry about accomodating, so he could presumably play anywhere on the front line, depending on what he and Mourinho see as his best fit. Either way, the risk here isn’t so much in if Bale is good enough to contribute to and improve Chelsea or United. Rather, the questions are whether Bale can stay fit enough to do so, and if any club wants to drop an enormous amount of money on that gamble. At, say £50 million, he’s probably a great bet. But at £90 million, it might be too rich.
Bale’s time at Madrid wasn’t exactly a failure, but for anyone who dreamed that Bale vs. Neymar would be the next Ronaldo vs. Messi, it’s a disappointment. While he probably won’t ever challenge for the Ballon d’Or for the rest of his career, he still has it in him to be a legit star—just maybe not to the extent forecasted by his late-Tottenham, early-Madrid days. Wherever Bale’s next destination is, it will likely be a very expensive rehab effort.