LEGEND OR LIABILITY: WHERE DOES GARETH BALE REALLY RANK IN WORLD FOOTBALL?
It’s fair to say that the former Galactico is not having the best of times on loan back at Tottenham, and there are more than a few criticisms flying around about Bale at the moment. While he has become a bit of a joke figure in recent seasons, occasionally by his own doing (ie. the Wales. Golf. Madrid incident), I still think that the name Gareth Bale should command a little more respect than it does right now, because underneath all the drama, he is an incredibly gifted player, who has achieved a hell of a lot in his career.
In the Champions League alone, Bale has had more success than most. At four titles, he has won more than Johan Cruyff, Raúl, Beckenbauer and many more legends of the game. However, just having four trophies to your name doesn’t automatically make you a legend, as is proved by Nacho also having the same four title wins, but not quite reaching the same individual heights of some of his peers. Bale played an important role in every one of those wins, although injuries limited his role in the most recent two tournaments to a super-sub. Even off the bench, he can still make an impact though. Ronaldo is often talked about as the ultimate clutch player, and Ramos often comes into that discussion too, particularly this season, but over the course of his career, Bale has proved to be a big game player too.
Nowhere was this truer than in the 2018 UEFA Champions League final against Liverpool, when Madrid were tied 1-1, with half an hour to go, and their third Champions League in a row on the line. Bale was brought on for Isco, and within two minutes had put Madrid back in front with a stunning overhead kick, and finished the game off late on with his second goal (helped out by a bad night from Karius), to make him the first substitute to score twice in a final, and put him second only to Ronaldo in terms of goals in Champions League finals.
Over his whole club career, Bale has amassed 308 goals and assists in 514 appearances. Even in a time when our perception of stats is warped by the mind-boggling numbers produced by the boots of Messi and Ronaldo, those are some impressive numbers. Particularly because Bale spent the first few seasons of his career as a left-back. A marauding left-back, but still a left-back. That roaming style has followed Bale from Southampton all the way to the Champions League final, and he has never lost that quality of popping up anywhere on the pitch, picking up the ball and charging through the opposition. Only in the last two or three years has Bale showed signs of slowing down, as he was shoved out of the Madrid setup, and stopped playing regular first-team football.
That issue is largely what is standing in his way this season. Bale has been bounced in and out of squads repeatedly for what seems like ages, and that has had an impact on his fitness. Couple that with the fact that he didn’t have a proper pre-season at the start of 2020/21, and the Bale we were all hoping to see come back to Tottenham was never going to happen. However, a new Bale could be on the horizon. While his legs may have started to wind down their careers, his mind and vision for a defence-splitting pass is still there. At the minute, Spurs have a funny relationship with their No. 10 spot, with Dele Alli nowhere to be seen, and Tanguy Ndombele starting the season there, and doing well. However, as much as Ndombele might enjoy playing there, his physicality is much more suited to a deeper role, similar to the one he played at Lyon before his move to London.
If Ndombele moves backwards, that leaves a space open for Bale to start his renaissance in a more central position, which sounds strange at first, but with his credentials, it would be crazy not to try.
At the rate things are going at Tottenham, it looks like Bale will be shipped back to Madrid in the summer, to see out the final year of his contract sitting in the stands of the Bernabeu. But if he can turn this loan around, then there’s no reason why Spurs shouldn’t extend the deal. The word from the camp is that Bale is a good figure to have in the dressing room, and very low maintenance for a player of his stature. If he does manage to find the form of the old Bale, he might just change a few minds about his quality before he retires too. If not, he will eventually be rightly remembered as one of the most special players of his generation.
Gareth Bale: a true great, who performed on the big stage for club and country.