It can be startling to remember that Gareth Bale has only been something of a punchline for two seasons. And we should all be so lucky to be considered a joke when making over $37 million per year to live in Madrid and not do a whole bunch. We’d all accept a pretty healthy share of laughs at our expense for ... well, that expense.
Apparently, Bale has decided two seasons were enough for being idle, being mocked, and being criticized, even at his gargantuan salary. Over the weekend, Bale’s move back to Tottenham became official - a one-year loan deal which will see Spurs only pick up 40 percent of his salary (which, kind of hilariously, makes just what Spurs are paying him still the biggest salary at the club). Between this news and seeing Heung-Min Son score four against Southampton on Sunday, it’s been quite a weekend for Spurs supporters.
While Bale has spent two years being decried for supposed laziness or a lack of ambition as Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane froze him out of the lineup and tried to push him out of the club altogether, it’s not as if Bale is so far removed from not just being a contributor, but from being utterly destructive. In the 2017-2018 season, while starting just 20 of Madrid’s 38 league games, Bale poured in 16 goals and four assists, easily second-best on the team behind Christiano Ronaldo. It was good for eighth-best in La Liga, and again, that’s while starting barely half the games. It was the third season in five Bale had produced more than 15 goals for Madrid, and thanks to either injuries or managerial whims he didn’t come close to starting every match. He only topped 30 starts in the league once in his seven seasons in the Spanish capital.
Not only did Bale not need a lot of starts to rack up what is still a deluge of goals (80 in 171 league appearances, 98 in 238 in all competitions), his efficiency was astounding. Two years ago, when he scored those 16 goals, he did it on just 78 shots and 30 shots-on-target. He took half the shots per 90 minutes that Ronaldo did. And yet his goals per shot-on-target was nearly twice as good. Bale also didn’t get to take Madrid’s penalties as Ronaldo did, meaning Bale’s lethal finishing and accuracy was in open-play. It was the same two years before that, when Bale was part of the most terrifying frontline in world football along with Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Bale was also the team’s best goal-creator, either scoring or assisting, per 90 minutes in those seasons.
Which makes one wonder if it was really worth it for Madrid, and Zidane in particular, to just decide he didn’t need Bale anymore. Especially after Ronaldo’s departure in 2018, Madrid have gone from scoring consistently 90 or 100 goals per season to just 63 and then 70 last year. Last year’s total was good enough for a league title of course, but A) that had more to do with Barcelona projectile vomiting it to them and B). Madrid will always judge themselves on their European exploits, and the past two seasons they haven’t been anywhere near the final. Both Ajax two seasons ago and Man City this past one made them look pretty toothless at the highest level.
Madrid have consistently failed to find regular companions for Benzema, with Eden Hazard being too hurt (or too round), Vinicius Junior too young and inconsistent, Isco not really being a forward, Luka Jovic being an utter disaster, and whatever other hair-brained experiments they could come up with.
Spurs sort of find themselves in the same boat, not realizing how good they had it not so long ago and clawing desperately to get back to that level to justify all the moves away from it recently. This is still a team that was in a Champions League final just a year and a quarter ago, along with consistently finishing in the top four in England.
But the performances, this past weekend aside, under Jose Mourinho have been drab, wayward, and infuriating. Like any Mourinho team, they want to defend first, but aren’t all that good at it. The back four can be plodding and that’s being kind. And when asked to attack, even just on the opening weekend of the season against Everton, they were the very definition of insipid.
Bale certainly should have some gas in the tank, even if he’s on the wrong side of 30, not having done much the past two years. Sadly, none of Bale’s, Son’s, nor Harry Kane’s track record of health is going to make anyone believe the three will appear together consistently. But Kane and Son together have mauled many teams, and putting Bale on his customary right side and cutting in on his left foot could be a front-line to rival Liverpool’s, City’s, or Chelsea’s. It also moves Lucas Moura to the bench for much-needed depth.
You can already see Kane dropping deep in between the forwards and midfield with Bale and Son making runs behind the defense for him to find, as Kane has always been as gifted a creator as he has been a finisher.
Spurs still look short in midfield, which could be mitigated by Mourinho opting for a 3-4-3 formation, and Bale’s fellow recruit from Madrid, Sergio Reguilon, is a left-back who could only aid in that idea. It would also better shield Spurs’ lack of creativity in their midfield.
However it goes, for the first time in a while, Bale and Spurs have people intrigued and even excited.