The days of watching Gareth Bale gather dust on the substitutes’ bench were supposed to be over. It’s difficult to question Jose Mourinho’s methodology at present given Tottenham Hotspur are top of the Premier League after 11 games, but one of the more surprising aspects of their buoyancy is the sparing use of their star name.
Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min can both rightly lay claim to that moniker as they continue to form one of the most prolific partnerships in Europe, but it was Bale’s return to Spurs on loan, after seven years at Real Madrid, that truly set minds racing as to what could be possible this season.
If Spurs were to make meaningful strides in closing the gap to Liverpool and Manchester City, then surely Bale would have to return as something close to the dynamic winger who convinced Real to make him the world’s most expensive player by paying £85.3 million for him in 2013. Yet Tottenham took seven points from City, Chelsea and Arsenal without Bale playing a single minute. In Spurs’ three biggest games of the season to date, the 31-year-old was reduced to watching from the sidelines, marginalised in a way that drew parallels with the end of his time in the Spanish capital.
Bale’s relationship with the hierarchy at Madrid had broken down to the extent that by the end of August, he wasn’t even hiding his feelings of disconnection from the team’s fortunes. Against Alaves, he used his face mask to cover his eyes and pretend to sleep in the stands, before openly laughing as Brahim Diaz was brought on as Real’s fifth and final substitute in stoppage time. A few days later, he played to the cameras again as he watched Real play Granada: Bale held up a roll of medical tape to his eye, forming one half of a set of imaginary binoculars, presumably searching for the career he had been forced to leave behind.
Bale was socially distanced from Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane long before it became compulsory, so much so that during a BT Sport advert imagining a world with unlimited substitutions, the Welshman allowed himself to be the butt of a joke as he posed on a golf course receiving a phone call from Trent Alexander-Arnold in which the Liverpool defender said to him: “You might actually get a game now.”
Bale isn’t playing much in the Premier League yet, but his demeanour is markedly different. With 2,000 fans allowed safely back into the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last weekend for Arsenal’s visit, Bale regularly acknowledged supporters chanting his name, and playfully kept warm on the touchline by gleefully maintaining a sprint ahead of his fellow substitutes trying in vain to catch up. There was even a sign of the level to which these Spurs players are buying into Mourinho’s trademark dark arts when Bale refused to move for Gunners defender Kieran Tierney, who was trying to steal a few yards down the touchline before taking a throw-in.
Bale needed time to get up to speed after his spell in the Madrid wilderness and Spurs are flying in multiple competitions, but with Liverpool and Leicester City lying in wait later this month, is Sunday’s trip to Crystal Palace the time for Bale to begin moving to centre stage as many expected?
Don Hutchison credits Spurs’ “brilliant” transfer window as the reason they should be ranked ahead of Man United.
There was momentum behind Bale’s integration that Mourinho carefully managed from the outset. The winger returned to north London in mid-September with a huge fanfare, but also a knee injury, underlining the need for a lengthy period of work on the training ground to discover the requisite sharpness to make an impact. He had started just four La Liga games in 2020 and only one since February as the coronavirus pandemic and a deterioration in his relationship with Zidane left Bale ostracised and alienated, a recreational golfer more than a professional footballer.
Bale consequently waited almost a month to make his Premier League debut against West Ham United in October, memorable for a wonderful piece of skill and penetration to create an opening he then squandered. That miss was compounded by West Ham snatching a point, coming from 3-0 down to score three times in the final eight minutes. Next time out in the league, Bale came off the bench to net the winner against Brighton & Hove Albion, a headed goal befitting of Spurs’ new No. 9. He showed more progress a week later, lasting 78 minutes in his first league start as Spurs beat West Bromwich Albion 1-0 at the Hawthorns.
Supplemented by regular game time in the Europa League, Bale was gradually coming good. Or, as Mourinho put it, “we all have, not just the feeling, but also the data that Bale is arriving.”
The Spurs boss felt Bale’s careful nurturing could have been undermined during last month’s international break, leading to the somewhat bizarre claim that Wales coach Albert Stuivenberg, who also works for Arsenal, would somehow sabotage the winger’s workload. As is often the case with Mourinho’s conspiracy theories, such concerns were unfounded: Bale sat out Wales’ friendly against the United States before playing 90 minutes against the Republic of Ireland and 61 minutes against Finland, all to positive effect. Yet since then, his only action at club level has come in three Europa League games, the last of which was a 58-minute start in Thursday’s 2-0 home win over Royal Antwerp.
There’s no suggestion that Bale is unhappy at his level of involvement at this stage, especially given he continues to feel the liberating effect of returning to north London and the wider excitement around the club resulting from their current form. But Bale is being paid around £200,000-a-week to do more than watch from the sidelines. He was expected to form a devastating triumvirate with Kane and Son, possessing the potency on paper to match any forward line around. Yet Mourinho’s pragmatism has taken priority for the time being and with results as they are — just two defeats all season and only one since the opening-day loss to Everton — Bale has had to be more patient than he would have anticipated.
Last week, Mourinho claimed that Bale was still struggling to trust his body.
“The only problem with Gareth is to get the dynamic and confidence of playing consecutive matches without any bad feeling, without any negative feeling, without any remembrance of the recent past where the condition was not the best and the fears were there,” he explained before Bale scored in 3-3 draw with LASK Linz. An ongoing measure of caution is understandable, but conditioning alone does not explain Bale’s absence from Tottenham’s Premier League team.
He may not have made the expected individual impact yet on the pitch, but Bale’s presence seems to have emboldened those around him. Sources have told ESPN that the Spurs players have been impressed with Bale’s level in practice sessions and his upbeat character around the training ground, even when not playing.
Steven Bergwijn‘s response has been particularly impressive. He won back possession against Arsenal five times — only Serge Aurier (11) and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (8) did it more — and has shown a willingness to apply himself to the defensive side of the game Mourinho deems so important. Mourinho freely admitted that Bergwijn “wasn’t my first option” after Spurs paid PSV Eindhoven £26m to sign the winger last January, but he started all three games against City, Chelsea and Arsenal to underline how much he has changed his manager’s mind.
Much has been made of Tottenham’s conservative approach in climbing to the top of the table. Mourinho’s requirement that his players remain disciplined and dogged out of possession, tracking back to close down space for opponents at all times, does not necessarily play to Bale’s strengths. The prodigal son may have returned, but he must muck in with the rest.
Ultimately, Bale’s quality in the final third will surely be a vital component in the challenges ahead. Spurs have been clinical at the top end of the pitch, remarkably so in fact, with Kane and Son both exceeding their expected numbers by some distance: Kane’s expected assists in the League stands at 4.31. He has 10. Son’s xG is 3.9. He has scored 10, the same number incidentally as Arsenal have managed all season. The importance placed on expected goal and assist statistics is debatable, but it does provide an indication that the pair are performing at a level of efficiency that is probably unsustainable over a 38-game campaign, especially one this condensed. And those will be the moments where others must step in.
Bale has had time to get ready. His moment may soon come.