Busted flush or ace in the pack? Gareth Bale may not have his electric pace of a decade ago but he can still be a threat for Tottenham
- Gareth Bale has the chance to prove he can still be a threat for Tottenham
- The 31-year-old was top of the class during Real Madrid’s fitness testing
- The forward has been working towards match sharpness after a knee injury
- He could make his long awaited return against West Ham on Sunday
The tell-tale signs were there, even as Gareth Bale drifted further into the shadows.
Even as skies darkened over his career at Real Madrid, a reminder that the fire still burned.
Last summer, as Spanish football emerged from shutdown, Zinedine Zidane tested his players’ speed, their strength, their readiness to secure LaLiga glory.
Gareth Bale could make his long awaited Tottenham return against West Ham on Sunday
The 31-year-old is back in training after recovering from a knee injury and is building up fitness
Bale, it’s said, ended top of the class. And yet over Real’s final 12 matches, Zidane used the 31-year-old only once.
It was the surest sign of bridges burnt but evidence, too, that Bale’s weapons still fired. This weekend against West Ham, Bale can prove just how much gunpowder remains.
His second coming for Tottenham arrives more than seven years since his last Premier League appearance and almost a decade to the day since one night in Milan catapulted Bale towards superstardom.
Against Inter in 2010, a stunning hat-trick put him on course for the Bernabeu.
But amid all the nostalgia, questions remain: does that Gareth Bale still exist? Or, at 31, has his threat shrunk with his golf handicap?
In recent days, Tottenham have provided the odd teaser.
Bale has been working towards match sharpness following knee trouble and social media has seen flashes of those pumping legs and that left foot.
He proved his weapons still fired after topping Real Madrid’s fitness tests following lockdown
Some things never change – even during training in his early Tottenham days, Bale offered glimpses of what could lie ahead.
‘There were things he did… where Luka Modric would turn and (be) like: “Wow, did we just see that?”,’ former assistant coach Clive Allen tells Sportsmail.
‘They were aware very quickly he could do things that no one else could.’
For a time, they remained only ‘glimpses’. And then Tottenham found themselves en route to a Champions League pasting at the San Siro – four goals and a man down at half-time.
‘It was going to take a phenomenal effort just to get out of there without really being embarrassed,’ Allen says. ‘Harry (Redknapp) spoke to the group and that was the message: we basically had to save face, really… and, pwoarh, Gareth just came alive.’
On 52 minutes, Bale soared clear from inside his own half before scoring from a tight angle. In stoppage time another break, another rocket finish. A minute later, his third came with a fine first-time shot. The pace, power and precise finishing was frightening.
‘This was the night he came of age,’ Allen remembers.
Spurs left empty-handed but Bale’s star had set sail. He tortured Maicon again in the return fixture as hours of hidden graft finally bore fruit.
The Wales captain came of age in a scintillating performance against Inter Milan back in 2010
‘He became a phenomenal athlete… he put a lot of work in and that took time to take effect,’ Allen says.
Sportsmail columnist Micah Richards recalls ‘eating Bale for lunch’ during his Southampton days, only for Bale to ‘destroy’ him a few seasons later.
‘He (became) a different person, a different shape, a totally different sportsman,’ former Liverpool defender Glen Johnson remembers.
And with confidence came consistency. In two seasons before Real came calling, Bale amassed 30 goals and 14 assists, with Andre Villas-Boas claiming his decision to shift Bale inside to a free role also ‘unlocked’ his potential and helped his career ‘explode’.
Then, after Madrid paid a world-record fee for him in 2013, Bale was usually deployed to the right of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.
Fifteen major trophies followed but his face never quite fit.
He failed to win over the fans or Spanish press.
‘They expect Galacticos to do everything – me being me and not wanting to do those things, that’s maybe why they didn’t like me so much,’ Bale recently admitted.
Neither he nor David Beckham spoke much Spanish. But the view there is that Becks played the game, befriending the likes of Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos. Bale lived more on the periphery – and on the golf course.
‘I’m very quiet,’ he said. ‘(I) keep myself away from the cameras.’
But that became more difficult as relations with Zidane grew more strained.
It’s claimed the Real boss believes all players should be equal; Bale wanted different (if not special) treatment.
Bale won 15 major trophies at Real Madrid but was criticised for remaining in the shadows
An example: after so many injuries, the winger has a trusted recovery process but Zidane preferred the team to recuperate together.
Their disagreements never escalated and nor did they preclude Bale from evolving into a superstar.
In 2017-18, the final season of Zidane’s first spell, Bale’s bicycle kick in Kiev capped an incredible campaign.
Analysis by Analytics FC show he was one of the world’s most dangerous forwards: even if his explosive pace had begun to wane, his powers had shifted. Beyond Bale’s 21 goals, there were few better at finding space or delivering killer balls. He was particularly devastating in a front two, or when getting into the box from the right flank.
Having Ronaldo on the opposite wing proved a blessing and a curse. Bale had the perfect foil but he was no longer his team’s talisman.
Even after his departure, Ronaldo’s shadow loomed large. Bale was criticised for not filling the void and Real remained lopsided, channelling attacks down the left.
The result? By the time he returned to Spurs, Bale was scoring less, creating fewer chances, dribbling less often and with less success.
Statistics tell only half the story, though. How many players shine when their game time is so limited, their future so uncertain?
The forward is an ideal fit for Tottenham’s right side alongside Harry Kane and Son Heung-min
‘When you’re not happy it’s difficult to play at your highest level,’ Bale recently told Sky. Now, back at Spurs, the ‘buzz’ has returned.
‘I feel energised again,’ he added. ‘That always leads to good performances normally.’
More crucial still? As Bale edged beyond 30, he has adapted.
‘I’m not the 20-year-old that sprints 90 yards down the touchline every two seconds,’ he said.
‘When you get older, you realise you have to manage yourself a little bit more and pick the right moments.’
Certainly, Analytics FC found Bale still rivals the likes of Kylian Mbappe as a running threat. Only now he is more savvy with his positioning and shooting.
Some in Spain, meanwhile, feel Bale’s game intelligence went unappreciated.
Even early last season, Zidane tended to pick the Welshman for tricky away games owing, it’s claimed, to his defensive discipline.
‘When you’re younger you just want to impress, to go 100 per cent all the time,’ Bale said. ‘When you get older you have the experience to manage yourself, manage the game.’
Johnson agrees. ‘No one is the same player at 30,’ he says. ‘(Bale) has developed… it’s almost like what (Ryan) Giggs did. Giggs played for another two or three years and didn’t run past anyone but he played a fantastic role a bit deeper.’
Then there are the inevitable gains of spending seven years alongside the world’s best.
Spurs have not won any silverware since Bale left and Mourinho will need winners to end that
All of which begs the question, what will Bale 2.0 offer back in lilywhite?
Hugo Lloris is the sole survivor from his last Premier League appearance but still they appear a good match.
Alongside Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, the 31-year-old seems an ideal fit for Mourinho’s right side – less the careering winger, more a potent threat from inside the box.
Analytics FC data suggest Kane’s recent glut of assists is no fluke – the Spurs captain is one of Europe’s most threatening playmakers.
Now it’s up to Mourinho to mould a frontline akin to Liverpool’s – pacey wide forwards knitted together by a creative No 9.
Bale’s biggest weapon, however, may be his know-how. Spurs have not picked up silverware since he left and Mourinho will need winners to end that drought.
Injury will be his greatest concern – Bale has already missed 33 games since the start of 2018-19. But should he stay fit, statistics and sense suggest the 31-year-old can still terrorise defences. The Bale of the San Siro has become a more measured, versatile and mature talent – hardened by age and experience.
‘I still believe I have a lot to offer,’ he recently insisted. ‘I wouldn’t be here otherwise… time will tell.’