Real Madrid to Tottenham Hotspur, loan
Gareth Bale’s return to Tottenham on loan from Real Madrid ahead of 2020/21 was greeted with as much anticipation as any other Spurs signing in the Premier League era. Returning to north London seven years after he had left for a world-record fee was a player who had provided some of their best memories of the 21st century, and who went on to win the Champions League four times with Real. However, having had plenty of injury problems during those years, and played very little football in his final season in Spain, there was a concern that Bale would never recover his best form. A slow start back at Spurs did little to dispel those concerns, but having worked hard to regain fitness and sharpness, he again started to prove his worth.
“There is not one single manager in the world who does not play Gareth Bale if Gareth Bale is in very good condition,” said José Mourinho, the manager who oversaw his return to the club. “In training, you can see his confidence is back. Everyone wants the best for him, because the best for him is the best for Tottenham.”
It is only natural, when considering what kind of player he is, for the mind to drift back to the hat-trick at Inter Milan in 2010 with which Bale announced himself on the world stage. The reality, however, is that at 31 when he moved back to Tottenham, the explosive acceleration and searing pace that defined the eye-catching, early days of his career are no longer quite what they were. Bale has therefore had to adapt his game. He still has a wand of a left foot, and his greatest threat is coming off the right to get into a shooting position. He is no longer able to receive to feet and beat an opponent to create his own shooting opportunities by shifting the ball with the outside of his left foot a few yards infield, so he has had to improve his movement to get into positions to score.
When play moves towards the left, Bale will drift into a centre-forward's position to attack a ball into the penalty area. Though he is not a natural number nine, in that he does not like playing with his back to goal, he does like to join attacks from a wide position and often shows the penalty-area instincts of a true goalscorer. He tends to make intelligent runs off the back of a defender to find space close to goal (below) rather than by beating an opponent in a direct duel for the ball, or by outmuscling a defender. When he does get a good chance, more often than not he finishes it.
He has always liked to move with the ball from wide and into central positions, and he increasingly does so to create with chipped balls towards the back post. However, he does not get much power or whip on those kinds of crosses, and they are too often easily dealt with by opposing defences. He has regardless developed an eye for a through ball as his career has progressed, and is happy to drop into midfield before sliding a pass forwards to a runner in behind (below). No longer the main figure at Tottenham, Bale has had to work hard to add to his team’s threat on goal.
The threat he provides on the ball means that he draws a lot of attention from defenders. He is capable of using that pressure to his team's advantage, by drawing opponents away from their positions for others to make forward runs into, particularly Spurs' right-back – be that Serge Aurier or Matt Doherty. Bale then offers his opponent a pressing trigger – by receiving with his back to goal, for example – and sets the ball back to a teammate to create an up-back-through movement.
Role for Tottenham
Bale largely plays towards the right of Spurs' attack in an in-possession 4-2-3-1 that becomes a 4-4-2 when they do not have the ball. Throughout 2020/21 under Mourinho, a player in Bale’s position had to do a lot of work without the ball; Mourinho wanted his wide attackers to break forward whenever there was space to attack, but he was extremely wary of his side being left too open at defensive transitions and so did not like committing too many players forwards.
Against strong opponents that meant his wide players having less freedom to get forwards, and with Bale no longer possessing the fitness to get up and down the wing – like Lucas Moura, Steven Bergwijn, Son Heung-min or indeed the Bale of old – he found it difficult to have quite so much impact in those games. Once one of the best counter-attacking talents in the world, Bale has had to find different ways to exert an influence.
Playing from the right, his inclination is to cut infield when he gets the ball, but opponents tend to defend against him with that in mind, leaving more space on the outside with the aim of preventing him from cutting inside and shooting. The memory of his final season at Tottenham before his move to Real may play a part in that, because Bale scored 21 Premier League goals, nine of which came from outside the penalty area. His tally of nine long-range goals in 2012/13 still remains a record by any player in any Premier League season before or since; opponents are thus reluctant to let him have any sight of goal on his left foot, no matter how far out.
Instead of taking a touch across a defender and bursting past them as he used to, when moving on to his left foot, Bale instead takes those touches diagonally away from goal. Doing so makes it easier to retain possession as there is less immediate threat on goal, so defenders put less pressure on the ball – but it does mean he is then facing away from goal, and his next action is often a pass to the right-back or a central midfielder rather than a progressive one. He sometimes attempts crosses from those positions, but they can be difficult to execute.
Bale has therefore had to work on going around the outside and crossing with his right foot, which was not previously a particular strength. He has improved significantly in that regard, though, and has had some success after working the ball on to his right. After a run of games and plenty of time to get sharp again, Bale has proved he still has the five-yard burst of pace needed to create space to put a cross in, and his delivery with his weaker foot is adequate.
When further from goal, Bale’s ball-striking ability has been useful in playing long balls either to switch play or to play teammates in from deep (above). After cutting on to his left foot from the right, he can accurately switch play with a low-trajectory ball across the pitch. Quick switches of play are vital to stretching opponents, and complement Harry Kane providing long, raking balls forwards for Son to chase. Bale plays more of a wide quarter-back's role when he drops deep, and when he does so, Spurs are able to commit Kane further forwards and therefore have an added element to their attack. Perhaps crucially, there is also less pressure on Kane and Son to score or create every goal.