After months of struggle, Gareth Bale appears to be back to his best for Real Madrid.
At the end of the 2015/16 season, Gareth Bale looked set to take over as Real Madrid’s main man. He had been the one responsible for maintaining Los Blancos’ title challenge and firing them to the Champions League final (which they won on penalties) just two years after scoring the go-ahead goal in their 2014 final win.
But then injury struck. Repeatedly. During 2016/17 Bale found it hard to build up a run of games and recapture his best form as he kept on being hampered by ailments. Then to make matters worse, in his absence Zinedine Zidane began looking not to James Rodriguez, a magnificent talent who played a similar position to Bale but in a less athletic way, but to Isco.
Isco was a completely different kind of player to Bale, and when he became a featured member of the Madrid first-team in Bale’s absence, the very nature of Madrid’s first-team changed. They went from being a counter-attacking based team, to one who relished control of the ball.
Zinedine Zidane’s central conceit of relying on crosses remained, but Isco’s involvement combined with Cristiano Ronaldo’s dwindling influence away from providing the finish gave more precedence to midfield. Madrid already had two world-class players there in Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, and with Isco floating as a no. 10, their control over games became even more total – leaving Karim Benzema to be the no. 9 and act as a foil for Cristiano, who was now only needed to attack.
This reduction of Cristiano’s role actually maximised his terrifying goalscoring skills, and he proceeded to cut a brutal and bloody path through the latter stages of the Champions League scoring 10 goals in his last five games in the competition (quarter-finals, semi-finals and final). And while this goalscoring stole the headlines, it was the midfield excellence of Modric, Kroos and Isco that underpinned all of Real Madrid’s greatness. That midfield and their ability to control matches and move the ball forward.
And that midfield had no room for Gareth Bale.
With the Welshman looking on from the bench, Los Blancos retained the Champions League and won La Liga for the first time in five years, completing a European Double (their third) and their best season since 1958. It was great for the club but troubling for Bale; did Madrid need him?
A summer of transfer rumours followed, with a link to Manchester United particularly strong, but Zinedine Zidane and Florentino Perez stood by their man. And a failure to acquire Kylian Mbappé meant that they had no need to change their mind late in the window (Zidane had said if Mbappé arrived then one of Bale, Benzema or Cristiano would have to leave).
So Bale began the season back at Madrid and looking to prove his worth. His early displays were poor, he looks utterly at odds with the way Madrid were playing now and even devoid of the athleticism that had initially set him apart. But a wonderful run and finish against Real Sociedad (set-up by Isco of all people) showed that he still drive in his legs and could perform.
Then the Champions League match against Borussia Dortmund allowed Gareth Bale to provide a fabulous and firm riposte to all those who had written him off. To be fair he had gotten an assist in his first Champions League game of the season but it was against APOEL so no one was really too bothered.
Dortmund were a different prospect entirely. Alright they’re not the greatest team in the world, but they’re a top quality side that everyone knows and recognises. Moreover Real Madrid had never won in the Westfalenstadion, so this game meant something.
Bale opened the scoring with a stunning volley, a truly breathtaking strike. It was all finesse, such a sweet strike that Bale barely needed to exercise those colossal quadriceps to generate power. He connected as sweetly as a well-timed cover drive (or Mike Tyson’s right hook-right uppercut combination, if you’re not a cricket fan) and it flew over Roman Burki into the back of the net.
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) September 26, 2017
This was the kind of thing Bale hadn’t done in a while, but amazing strikes aren’t exactly going to set him apart in the Madrid team while Cristiano Ronaldo and Marco Asensio exist. But Bale’s involvement in the second goal showed a unique side to him, something that sets him apart.
Played in down the left by Toni Kroos, Gareth Bale raced away from the Dortmund defence and delivered a laser-precise cross into the area for Cristiano Ronaldo to make it 0-2. That was one of two chances Bale created; both were crosses from the left-wing.
Bale was ostensibly one of the strikers in Madrid’s 4-3-1-2, but in reality played like something of a left-winger. This allowed him to threaten goal whilst also functioning as a quality outlet for Madrid’s new midfield as led by the incredible Isco.
In truth, the roots of this compatibility go back to Isco’s inception under Zinedine Zidane, when the Spaniard played as a no. 10 in a 4-4-1-1 system against Atlético Madrid. In that game, Gareth Bale played a literal left-wing role in an absolute thrashing.
Isco conducted the tempo as Madrid roared forward on the break and destroyed their city rivals, whilst Bale was a lethal outlet who assisted Cristiano with a left-wing cross. Bale’s performance was lost in the hoopla around Cristiano’s hat-trick and Isco’s excellence, but it was the seed of something potent.
Real Madrid now do not play the kind of system that would allow Bale to flourish in his usual role, it’s like placing a bull in the ballet. But by peeling wide and playing as a “false winger” he can become the kind of direct outlet that allows Los Blancos to switch from possession-based play to a thunderingly direct style and catch opponents off-guard and with their pants down.
Madris’s ballet could make magnificent use of the bull that is Bale to add a touch of chaos to things. Chaos that could help their system evolve as they look to retain La Liga (for the first time since 2008) and complete a hat-trick of Champions League trophies for the first time since 1958. Despite being written off by almost everyone, Gareth Bale could yet prove himself essential to Real Madrid’s fortunes.