Football Features

Gareth Bale: the attacking leader Manchester United need

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 17:18, 23 July 2019

Gareth Bale is on the way out at Real Madrid.

It’s not official yet but at this point, it can only be a matter of time. After leaving Bale out of the matchday squad for the season-opening friendly against Bayern Munich, Zinedine Zidane explained his decision by saying “We are working on his transfer to a new team,” adding: “I have nothing personal against him, but there comes a time where things are done because they must be done.”

If it wasn’t clear from the way Zidane treated Bale when he was in charge, constantly dropping him to the bench and only calling on him when desperate (as in the 2018 Champions League final, which Bale duly won for the French coach), it is now very explicitly obvious that Zidane does not want Bale at Real Madrid.

So, now Los Blancos will try to find an exit for a player who is on a very well paid contract all the way up to 2022. A move to China has been mooted, but that doesn’t seem like it will appeal to a player who still has much to give. Bale is in a tricky spot, really. Teams that want him can’t afford him, and teams that can afford him don’t want him.

Manchester United are a side who can certainly afford Gareth Bale, but they are reportedly cooling their long-standing interest in the Welsh wonder. This is a mistake now more than ever. Obviously, Bale was a better player in better form when the Red Devils made previous attempts to sign him but, now, at 30-years-old, he has more to offer United than just football.

But let’s look at the football for a second.

There’s been a lot said about Bale recently, largely stemming from Zidane’s underuse of him. After all, if a manager as successful as Zidane doesn’t rate Bale, there must be something wrong with him, right? Wrong.

Injuries have often held Bale back in the Spanish capital, cutting him off just when he looked like building momentum (he was Madrid’s key player at the end of 2015/16 but injuries rocked his 2016/17 and in his absence Los Blancos were magnificent). But beyond physical frailty and the linguistic struggles, Bale has been a powerful and potent match-winner.

Back in 2014, Bale’s first season in Madrid, the Welshman won his side the Copa del Rey and the much-fabled “Decima” – the 10th Champions League they had chased since 2002. He lost none of his potency over the subsequent years, helping Wales reach the Euro 2016 semi-finals and performing against Barcelona in El Clásico, as well as rocking Liverpool’s world in the 2018 Champions League final.

He’s a true veteran and proven presence in big games.

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Now, look at United’s attacking options once Romelu Lukaku leaves (as he seems likely to do so). 17-year-old Mason Greenwood, 19-year-old Tahith Chong, 21-year-olds Marcus Rashford and Daniel James then, finally, 23-year-old Anthony Martial. It’s all youth and inexperience. Sure, Rashford and Martial have plenty of games under their belts and Greenwood has been electric on his pre-season tour (and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer recently said “he’s ready to be in this squad”) but they are still just kids, really. They all need a guiding hand.

Sure, 30-year-old Alexis Sánchez should be that guy. But Manchester United’s no. 7 is a lost soul and the recent “backing” he has received from Solskjaer reads more like a coach scrambling to find something positive to say about a player who hasn’t had a good sustained run of club form since Spring 2017. Both Bale and Alexis have struggled of late, but where Bale has scored 35 goals in the last two seasons of poor form, Alexis has just 13. The Chilean has fallen faster and harder, to the point where a move to China actually makes sense.

So, you move Alexis on, anywhere really, and you bring Bale in. He won’t be cheap. You could probably get a good deal on the fee since Madrid are so desperate, but he would want his big wages paying. Still, with Bale installed in the right-wing slot that is currently being rotated between Greenwood and James, United have a fearsome front three.

Martial, Rashford and Bale. All blazingly quick, all good finishers, all good running with and without the ball. They all love big games and they’re all positionally fluid enough to play at least two of the three positions in attack. He’s also versatile enough that United could play him up-top as one of the split-strikers in the diamond formation Solskjaer used to great effect last season. Bale is phenomenal in the air, so would excel if played in a more direct “striker” position. Hell, you could even go old-school 4-4-2 and put Bale in left-wing. There are so many options because of the Welshman’s tactical fluidity.

Bale provides not just obvious quality on the field, but his selfless style and willingness to work hard would allow Solskjaer’s star-less system, where everyone puts a shift in, to maintain. He is, by all accounts, a wonderful team-mate and would be able to offer so much guidance on how to traverse big nights (at home and in Europe) to these young attacking talents. Rashford has shown flashes but with Bale’s help, he could consistently impact games on the continent.

And at 30, he’s not really going to stunt Greenwood and Chong’s development. Realistically, there are maybe two or three great years left in Bale, but that’s all United need to get their players in perfect position to take flight all by themselves. Also, his gigantic physique will need to be rested periodically so there would still be plenty of minutes for the likes of Greenwood and Chong to actually play.

As a final bonus, the cherry on top of the sundae that would make this transfer perfect, with Lukaku gone, Martial could return to his previous shirt number 9. This would leave Bale free to walk into Ryan Giggs’ no. 11.

That’s such a perfect fit given that Manchester United tried desperately to bring Bale to Old Trafford back in 2013 in order to carry on the legacy of wing wizardry that Welshman Giggs began back in 1991. But it wasn’t the right time then. It is now.

Bale is a mature, skilled, natural-born winner. And whatever risk his transfer would pose is squashed by the benefits he would bring. He could lift Manchester United’s young forwards up to their full height, help return the Red Devils to the Champions League, and actually enjoy himself again playing in front of 75,000 adoring fans who actually value him.

Everybody wins!