When Gareth Bale was about to come off the bench for Tottenham at Marine in the FA Cup on January 10, the eighth tier non-League side’s midfielder Jay Devine looked over at the four-time Champions League winner and asked, “What are you doing here, lad?”
Bale smiled back, “Why not?”
Beforehand, he had asked head coach Jose Mourinho to be involved at tiny Rossett Park, even though he only had one training session before the game after being forced off at half-time in the Carabao Cup quarter-final at Stoke City two and a half weeks earlier by a calf injury.
So Bale got his 25 minutes off the bench, his 12th appearance for Spurs since he returned on loan last summer. But three months after his second debut for the club, he does not look much closer to his best, or closer to being part of Tottenham’s strongest team, than he did in that October game against West Ham United.
And it does raise the same question that Devine put to Bale: What is one of the greatest players in British history doing at Spurs right now?
It was no secret that when Bale’s loan signing was announced on September 19, he was not fully fit to play. The last few years of his time at Real Madrid had not been easy.
Last season he only started 14 games in all competitions, and only one of them came post-lockdown, a 2-0 home stroll over eventually-relegated Mallorca in June. The Spanish giants pulled the plug on Bale’s proposed move to China’s Jiangsu Suning in July 2019, then barely used him afterwards.
While his return to Spurs was certainly driven by chairman Daniel Levy, Bale was always under the impression that Mourinho wanted him, too. And Bale had one month of training, building up his fitness, before Mourinho gave him his second debut, coming on after 72 minutes when Tottenham were 3-0 up at home against West Ham and cruising. But he missed a chance to kill the game and Spurs ended up being pinned back to a 3-3 draw.
Since then Bale has started eight games, six of them in the Europa League. Only once has he lasted to 80 minutes.
Mourinho said this week that the problem was the six Europa League group stage games represented a “different intensity, different rhythm, different quality” from the more serious competition of the Premier League. Bale has three goals to his name in this second spell: a very valuable headed winner against Brighton & Hove Albion in the league in November, a penalty to equalise against LASK Linz a month later and a clever flicked header to put Spurs 1-0 up in that Carabao Cup tie in Stoke. But he has never looked like the great player he used to be, with none of the old sparkle or, more importantly, speed.
There is no getting past the fact Bale has played less and done less than everyone hoped when he returned to the club.
He has not played one minute in the league since the loss to Leicester exactly a month ago. And it feels that if he is to make this season-long loan worthwhile, or have any chance of being at Spurs next season, something will have to change.
One obvious solution would be for Bale to simply play more. Even given his injuries, he is not playing very much. His four Premier League appearances have totalled 161 minutes, an average of just over 40 minutes each time. He has been an unused substitute for the last two league games, against Fulham and Sheffield United. Bale might well argue himself that if he does not get real playing time, he will never be able to recover his match sharpness. No one plays themselves back into form with 10 minutes here and 20 minutes there, especially not after years on the sidelines in Spain.
Mourinho, it should be acknowledged, is trying to manage a tired squad through an unprecedently squeezed season, hoping to compete on four different fronts, trying to deliver the club’s first trophy since 2008 as well as a return to Champions League football. He is under short-term results pressure and with Harry Kane and Son Heung-min both automatic picks, he only has one attacking place left. He cannot be blamed for preferring the scurrying, all-round game of Steven Bergwijn over what Bale currently offers.
Maybe, being optimistic, there is still time for Bale to play his way back into form. Mourinho said last week this would not be “an easy process” but said he wanted to go “step by step” to “try to get the best out of him”.
Maybe if Bale does well against Championship strugglers Wycombe Wanderers in the FA Cup on Monday he can be in contention to face Liverpool three days later or Brighton on the Sunday. Maybe then he can add to his eight touches in the opposition box and seven shots in the Premier League this season. It doesn’t sound like much, but that’s because of a lack of playing time. Measured per 90 minutes, he actually comes out of the statistics quite well.
|PLAYER||TOUCHES IN THE BOX PER 90 MINUTES|
Spurs have a relentless schedule for the rest of this season.
On February 18, the Europa League resumes with the last-32 home-and-away knockouts and there is still the small matter of a Carabao Cup final against Manchester City on April 25. If Spurs are playing twice a week until May, there will be plenty of games left for Bale to be involved in, and to make a difference. A fairytale ending, with Spurs in the hunt for trophies, is still just about possible.
But there is another possibility, which is that no amount of football can ever turn Bale back into the player he was at Spurs first time around, or even get him close to that level. There is a theory at the club that the last few years in Madrid, being frozen out by coach Zinedine Zidane, almost being sold to China, have taken too much out of him physically and mentally.
There is no question that Bale is a very different player now than the one Tottenham sold to Real Madrid in the summer of 2013. That old explosive pace and power have largely gone. In the dressing room, players wonder whether he can truly open up and run like he used to, or whether he is too at risk of breaking down again after so many injuries. It is not unfair to wonder if Bale, who turns 32 in July, will ever be able to play like he used to again.
The reality of Bale’s career is that he has played so much football, starting 43 Championship and cup games for Southampton in 2006-07 at the age of 17, and eventually that much football catches up with a player’s legs. Some speed players manage to adapt their game in their 30s to adjust to this, as Ryan Giggs did. But plenty of players — like Michael Owen or Fernando Torres — struggle to be as effective once their pace goes.
In a press conference last week, Mourinho suggested there were deeper reasons why Bale has not performed yet, reasons he would hint at but not fully divulge. “The reasons he didn’t reach in this period the level that Tottenham supporters remember him is a complex answer and I’m not prepared to (give it),” Mourinho said. “If Gareth was here, we could speak a little bit about it. But just by myself, I’m not comfortable.”
PLAYER SHOTS PER 90 MINUTES
Carlos Vinicius 7.2
Gareth Bale 3.91
Harry Kane 3.85
Erik Lamela 3.44
Dele Alli 2.43
Son Heung-min 2
Steven Bergwijn 1.29
Lucas Moura 0.97
And yet despite the frustrations on the pitch, sources are unanimous that Bale is happy at Spurs and enjoying his time there. He still has the European Championship to look forward to in the summer, which is hugely important to him. At the last Euros in 2016, he took debutants Wales to an unlikely semi-final and he would desperately love to make a similar impression on this summer’s tournament. Given the intensity difference between club and international football, he might well be able to.
Until then, Bale is enjoying life back in leafy north London, and back at a club he loves. He has plenty of friends among the Spurs team and staff, and he has been found to be precisely the same character as the youngster who made his name at the club a decade ago: funny, jovial, relaxed, youthful, plenty of jokes, schoolboy pranks, no airs and graces. Those seven years as a galactico and four Champions League trophies have not changed his fundamental character at all.
Last summer, before signing Bale, Spurs signed Joe Hart on a free transfer from Burnley, in part to be a vocal leader around the club. And one dressing room source says that Bale has effectively shared that role with the former England goalkeeper, encouraging people around the training ground, contributing to the positive feeling at Tottenham, injecting some big-name character into the place where it had been lacking in the past. “If we are successful this year,” the source says, “a lot of that will be down to Bale and Hart.”
Even though Mourinho is not picking him every week, he does like Bale, and likes chatting with him about their careers, the Champions League and Real Madrid. “Bale is a player that I always loved,” Mourinho said last week. He said he even tried to get the Bernabeu club’s president Florentino Perez to sign Bale for him in 2012, a year before he did eventually make that move. “He’s a guy I like very much. As a person, he’s a really, really nice guy, a dressing room guy. I see him every day really happy. His interaction in the group is amazing.”
You might wonder whether being a “dressing room guy” is what Bale was brought back for, when Levy did the deal to take him back on loan. Ultimately, Tottenham are paying him at least £200,000 per week — more than any of their other players — so that he can make a difference on the pitch. It was little more than two and a half years ago, remember, that he stunned Liverpool with that overhead kick in the Champions League final in Kyiv.
PLAYER SHOOTING ACCURACY
Lucas Moura 100
Son Heung-min 73.08
Erik Lamela 60
Carlos Vinicius 50
Dele Alli 50
Harry Kane 47.27
Gareth Bale 33.33
Steven Bergwijn 30
But for now, we just do not know whether we will see that explosive Bale ever again. Mourinho says there has been no discussion whether Spurs will keep him for next season, but if he is not playing for them he is unlikely to be playing for anyone else. He certainly does not intend to give up any of the money Real Madrid owe him for the last year of his contract or go on loan elsewhere. And if that means seeing out his final year in Madrid, so be it.
You wonder whether, if Bale can cement his legacy at the Euros, and if no move can be agreed for him next season, he might choose to call time on his career this summer, with an early retirement at 32.
He has already won more and earned more than almost any other British player of the modern era. There is very little left for him to prove. For now, he is just happy to be back home at Spurs and contributing, even if it is not in the way we first knew him for.