Why Gareth Bale could, and could not, be exactly what Tottenham needs…
Tottenham announced the shock resigning of Gareth Bale this past week, with the player returning to North London on loan from Real Madrid. It was a deal that seemed to come out of the blue, almost seemingly being a tacked-on extra to Tottenham’s signing of Real Madrid left back Sergio Reguilón. Bale needed to leave Real Madrid, and a move back to his former club could be seen as a positive turn in the right direction for the Welshman’s career. Even if he is not fit to play until November, the excitement around his return offers the momentum needed to possibly help turn their fortunes around following a rough previous season and rough start to this season, potentially allowing manager Jose Mourinho to get the results that he desires.
As we have asked with every transfer on this site, let us examine how this Bale move will work out, and whether this is the right or wrong move for Spurs to make. It is certainly a move that has generated quite a bit of hype and generated many opinions and takes throughout the football world.
For Spurs, this move is a bit of a gamble while still filling an immediate need in the team. Under Jose, Spurs have often lined up in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, with Kane as the front striker with two wingers running off of him, sometimes utilizing a number ten behind him and sometimes not. Despite the tactical organization of Jose’s teams, the attacking strategy has often revolved around the individual brilliance of Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son. The third spot in the front three has been filled by several options, most notably Lucas Moura and Steven Bergwijn, but neither have consistently shown enough to be the solid third option. Also, when Son and Kane missed significant time last season due to injury, the attack struggled, having to rely on other players who were not able to contribute at the level of their injured counterparts. In Bale, Spurs have a player who can naturally fit into that right winger role, being a left-footed right winger able to cut inside and score, as well as play as a striker when the tactical situation demands it or if Kane were to be out due to injury. Despite whatever the last few years has shown, Bale is still a fantastic player on his day. Skillful and aggressive with an eye for goal and a pension for doing the spectacular, Bale quite simply makes Spurs better if he is able to find his footing and perform at the level that we all know he is still capable of. After all, we are only two years removed from him nearly single-handedly winning Real Madrid the Champions League against Liverpool with two incredible goals. There is still talent there, and if Bale is able to find form, then he could be in for a fantastic season.
I anticipate Spurs would line up in a 4-3-3 when Bale is fully fit and in the team, with him playing on the right in a front three with Son on the left and Kane playing through the middle. In this set up, Spurs more or less emulate Liverpool’s front three or, more applicable for Bale, Real Madrid’s Bale-Benzema-Cristiano partnership. Kane, while being known for being a great goalscorer, is also very good at playing somewhat of a false nine role, with the positional understanding to drop into space and occupy the center backs to free up space for his teammates. He is also a very underrated playmaker, with the vision and ability to pick a pass that many strikers do not have, as he demonstrated with his four assists against Southampton this past weekend. In an ideal attacking scenario, Kane’s movement is able to open up space for Son and Bale to attack, leading to plenty of goalscoring opportunities for both wingers, similar to Firmino for Liverpool and Benzema for Real Madrid. In this sense, Bale has re-entered a scenario where he had plenty of success, entering a team that emulates an attacking pairing he enjoyed during his prime in Madrid. In a situation not as toxic as the one he left behind, Bale will hopefully be able to fit into the Spurs team naturally and combine with the other attacking players to form what could potentially be one of the best attacks in the Premier League.
For Bale, this is the most logical move to make. Bale has long needed to get out of Madrid. While he is at fault for his share of the degrading relationship between himself and Los Blancos‘ manager Zinedine Zidane, it has been apparent for a while now that this loveless marriage between Bale and Real Madrid needed to come to an end. He needed to go to a club where not only would he play and play a significant part in the team, but he would also be comfortable. Even before the serious problems with Zidane began, it was clear that Bale was not fully adapted to life in Spain. Not only does he now return to the United Kingdom, but he returns to the club where he made his breakthrough into superstardom. It is this facet that has me believe that returning to Spurs was the better decision than going to Manchester United, the other English club that was seriously exploring the options to sign him. Sporting-wise, neither Tottenham or Manchester United are exactly in great positions at the moment. Neither club will seriously contend for the title this season, and they will likely both be in scraps to maintain Top Six status and chase a Champions League place against Arsenal and, potentially, Everton, Wolves, and/or Leicester City. A move to United would have likely been a permanent move, unlike the loan he is currently on, and he probably would have been paid more in Manchester and likely would have also started immediately, but he is not going to get the sense of comfort he will from playing for his former club. This ability to feel comfortable and be in an environment you are used to, especially after everything he went through in Madrid, will be important in allowing Bale to return to the level that we all know he can achieve.
However, there are plenty of reasons as to why I am skeptical of this move, or at least skeptical of this move being exactly what Spurs need to elevate them back into a top four side. First, let us revisit that attacking system we discussed earlier. This team, even with Bale in it, is still incredibly reliant on Harry Kane. It is still a system that needs Kane’s very particular set of skills to create serious attacking chances. Liverpool can at least rely on the fullbacks to create some chances, and Real Madrid could always find chances from Modric and Kroos, but Spurs have not shown to have any consistently serious attacking threats outside of Kane and Son. Bale could prove me wrong in this sense and provide some form of creative element, and I recognize this criticism is not necessarily about Bale, but I do not see this attack working nearly as well if Harry Kane were to go down injured again. Also, this is a Jose Mourinho team. Jose’s teams are not quite known for being high-speed attacking sides similar to the Liverpool team I compared this front three to. It is very possible that Jose’s pragmatic, more defensive approach means that we do not get to see this front three play with the handbrake off, and Bale’s influence in the team could be more limited. Again, another criticism about the Spurs team and not necessarily Bale, but these concerns with Spurs do show that bringing the Welshman back may not be something that fully revolutionizes the team overnight.
Ok, now let us actually talk about concerns with the player, as there are definitely some concerns about this move. Bale has had quite the unfortunate injury record since leaving London, and this has seen him spend several long stints on the sidelines and was probably the main reason that we were never able to see the full potential of the Bale-Benzema-Cristiano front three. Bale is now 31, having not played a significant role in a team for several years, so if his injury history has followed him back to London, it could be something that ruins his ability to gel in the team. Especially for a player like Bale, whose best and most famous trait has seemingly been his lightning-quick turn of pace, injury concerns could hamper his ability to contribute in the team. After all, he already comes in carrying an injury that has ruled him out until November. Considering the very unfortunate injury luck Spurs had last season, they better hope that does not carry over into this season.
Bale could also not be the right archetype of winger needed to make the most impact. Throughout his career, Bale has always been a very direct player, primarily effective as a goalscorer on the wing and not necessarily always known for creating chances for his teammates. Yes, Bale is still a need for the team and is still better than the other options at the club, but Spurs already have a winger of that style in Son, and something that they still immensely struggle with is chance creation. Since Christian Eriksen’s departure last season, they never really had a player who was able to create attacking chances to that degree. Part of that was by design, with Jose not really preferring Eriksen even when he was still with the team, but part of it was also due to the inability to replace Eriksen’s impact outside of an over-reliance on Kane. It is very possible that Spurs have these three very effective attacking players and not enough creativity behind them to get them the chances they need. Hence, my point in the previous paragraph, their over-reliance on Kane might still be a downfall in the team, and Bale might not be able to solve that.
I am also going to spare a moment to talk a bit about the first big-picture, domino-falling impact that this move has had: it has seemingly pushed Dele Alli closer to the exit door. Dele has been through a wild ride under Mourinho at Spurs. His revitalization during the early days of Jose’s reign was seen as the telltale sign that Jose was having a massive impact on the team, but he has seemingly since fallen out of favor with the Portuguese manager. After being subbed off after only 45 minutes against Everton and not featuring at all against Lokomotiv Plovdiv in the Europa League Qualifiers or against Southampton in the league, it seems that the Bale transfer is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. I understand that Bale’s return is too difficult of a prospect to turn down, and I understand that Dele has been inconsistent in recent seasons, but is it really worth giving up on him now from Spurs’ point of view? I am not quite sure. Yes, he has not consistently hit the levels he was at during his breakout seasons in North London, but I would argue that was not entirely on him. Yes, his attitude and injury issues were part of the problem, but his utilization was also an issue. Under Pochettino, he was slowly but surely shoehorned into a deeper lying role, away from his desired attacking number ten role and in a way that did not allow him to have serious influence on the attack. Mourinho started playing Dele back in that attacking role, and he thrived in it early on, but Mourinho slowly but surely forced him further back as well. Many look at Dele as a lost cause or failed talent now, but despite how long it seems he has been in the spotlight as a player, he only just turned 24. He has plenty of time to turn around his misfortunes and find the consistency in his career that he needs, but it does not seem that Spurs want to do what they need to do to get the best out of the player.
This is seemingly a story that is told at many clubs Jose manages; a young player not trusted by the manager leaves and has success elsewhere. At Manchester United, it was Memphis Depay. At Chelsea, it was Kevin De Bruyne. At Real Madrid, it was Nuri Sahin. At Inter, it was Leonardo Bonucci. Will Dele be another case of this? Bale is a very short-term risk; he is only at the club for one season, and even if it was not a loan, he is already 31, with a bad injury history and very high wages. This is part of Jose’s, and chairman Daniel Levy’s, plan to win right now, a gamble Jose often makes, which is part of the reason why clubs have often been left in a worse situation when Jose leaves compared to when he arrived. This is the bedrock of why this move is such a massive risk. If Bale is a star and Spurs win silverware or get back into the Champions League while he is at the club, then it is a massive success. If he does not thrive and Spurs finish outside of the top four, or potentially outside of the top six, it could lead the club down the road that most Jose managed teams have gone down, with key players leaving and the club falling from their peak. With this move, Spurs are essentially trading a player who could still become a valuable future asset for a player with a very limited shelf life remaining in an attempt to win immediately. If Dele goes to another club and succeeds, then it will likely haunt Spurs for the foreseeable future, especially if they do not win a trophy with Bale.
Gareth Bale’s move has sure got people talking, and with good reason. This could potentially make a very exciting Spurs team, or it is a massive risk that may or may not pay off for Jose Mourinho and Daniel Levy. For Bale, it offers him a chance to redeem his legacy. If he wins silverware with Spurs, then many will likely forget about the issues he has had in his last few seasons in Madrid. Bale gambled on himself, and Levy gambled on Mourinho’s ability to build him a winning team right now. Given all of the factors in this deal, I think it was the right gamble to make. Spurs need something that massively shifts the mentality and attacking side of this team, and taking a risk on a year of Gareth Bale is not a ridiculous move to make. I think Spurs might regret fully giving up on Dele Alli, but I feel his time in North London was numbered regardless of this move.
If it does not work out, I am sure there are plenty of great golf courses in the south of England that Bale would enjoy playing.