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What is going on with Gareth Bale at Tottenham?

The Wales star looks a shadow of his former self at present.

Tottenham Hotspur's Gareth Bale (file pic).
Tottenham Hotspur's Gareth Bale (file pic).
Image: PA

THERE ARE many examples in football of a much-loved player going back to a former club that helped establish him as a superstar — Robbie Fowler at Liverpool, Thierry Henry at Arsenal, and Wayne Rooney at Everton, to name a few.

Rarely, however, does the second coming prove as successful as the memorable initial spell.

We are only just over halfway through the current season, but already, Gareth Bale is looking like reinforcing the footballing dictum that a player should ‘never go back’.

Despite the fact that it’s only a loan deal until the end of the campaign, the Wales international hasn’t come cheap. 

The 31-year-old is reportedly costing Tottenham £20 million in loan fees and wages.

So far, it’s fair to say, it has not looked like money well spent.

Bale has scored four goals since re-joining Tottenham, but only one of those has been in the Premier League. He has appeared six times in the top flight and all bar two of those games saw him come off the bench in the dying minutes.

Unless a dramatic turnaround occurs in the coming months, the Wales international will be regarded as one of the flops of the season.

It looks set to be a sad end compared with the remarkable highs of his first Tottenham stint that prompted his move to Real Madrid for a then-world-record fee of of €100.8 million.

After a disastrous start that saw him part of an unfortunate winless run leading to serious talk of moves to a couple of Championship sides, Bale’s fortunes improved significantly.

While Spurs did not win any major trophies during that period, Bale consistently shone. He made the PFA Premier League Team of the Year three seasons in a row between 2010 and 2013, and was also named the PFA Players’ Player of the Year on two separate occasions.

His move to Real Madrid was a qualified success. 105 goals in 251 appearances for the La Liga outfit was a creditable return all things considered, while his trophy haul was impressive — it includes two La Liga titles, one Copa de Rey and four Champions League trophies.

Yet living up to the lofty expectations was always going to be difficult — Bale usurped Madrid legend Cristiano Ronaldo as the world’s most expensive player, yet had nowhere near the same impact as the Portuguese icon. It’s harsh criteria by which to judge a player, but the fact that those expectations existed in the first place are a testament to how well he did at Spurs.

But since rejoining the North London club, Bale’s legacy at Tottenham is becoming tarnished, owing to a series of underwhelming performamces that feature only sporadic glimpses of the world-class player he once was.

So what has gone wrong?

His ostensibly tense relationship with boss Jose Mourinho has not helped. The problems appeared evident after Tottenham’s FA Cup loss to Everton during the week, when the coach described Bale’s injury as “not obvious”.

Mourinho was also angry with a post on Bale’s official Instagram page that showed him training along with the words “good session today”.

Prior to the weekend’s game against Manchester City, Jose Mourinho said the player was in contention to feature, as well as claiming there was a “contradiction” in his controversial post.

“I have to admit that his post created a need of being addressed. There was a contradiction between the post and the reality,” Mourinho told reporters.

“Since the beginning of the season, in relation to everything, I’ve tried to be very private and keep everything indoors but I felt that I needed to address the situation.

“Probably the post was not even his responsibility, but it was showing that training session was ‘great’ and ‘I’m ready’ which was totally wrong. So when questioned I had to give the reality of things.

“I repeat for the last time. He was not feeling good. He asked for a scan. He had a scan. The scan did not show an injury but his feelings were still there but as coaches, medical people we can never go against the player feelings.

“So he was not ready for the game. It’s as simple as that. If he’s ready for tomorrow he’s selected for tomorrow.”

Both individuals’ recent actions suggest the relationship between the pair is not especially strong. And Bale could conceivably point to that factor if the Spurs move ultimately doesn’t work out.

In his defence, he would not be the first top-quality player that Mourinho has overlooked, as the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Mo Salah will attest.

Yet Bale had a similarly distant relationship with Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane. 

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One of the most highly regarded managers of the past 20 years is capable of underestimating a player’s ability, but surely not two.

The simple truth may be that Bale isn’t physically capable of playing to the expected standard at the top level anymore.

His Southampton debut came at 16, making 43 appearances for the Saints before joining Tottenham at 17 for a fee that amounted to £10 million including add-ons.

He has played more or less regularly since then, and given how early he started, it would be no surprise if his body was starting to break down at the relatively young age of 31.

This scenario is not uncomon for elite footballers, and particularly those who made their name as attacking wide players with a game based primarily on pace and power.

While Bale is still capable of match-winning moments, as his brilliant header against Brighton back in November illustrated, the explosiveness of the earlier years is largely absent. For the most part, when previously he would have tried to beat a player, now he is usually content to produce a sideways pass.

Individuals such as Cristiano Ronaldo — the player to whom Bale has frequently been compared — and his fellow Welshman Ryan Giggs are the exceptions rather than the rule.

These are players that successfully adapted their game as they grew older, ensuring they remained indispensable. By contrast, there are numberous examples of wingers that are effectively done as top-level players not long after they hit 30.

Of course, Bale has been prematurely written off before by some critics. He failed to win his first 24 games in that first spell at Tottenham and was initially a peripheral player under Harry Redknapp.

And speaking on Talksport earlier this month, Redknapp urged Mourinho to do as he ultimately did and give Bale a proper run in the team.

“People say to me he looks like he’s not interested or he doesn’t care, and I’ve heard all this.

“If he didn’t care then he would have stayed at Real Madrid earning the same money; he’s come here because he wants to play and prove himself again.

“He’s not the most confident boy in the world, even though he was up there for me in the top five players in the world when he was at Tottenham first and then Real Madrid.

“You’ve got to make him feel like he’s the main man and give him confidence. Surely, you’ve got to find a way and it’s the manager’s job to unlock that talent and get him going again.

“I’m sure it’s in there and it needs bringing out now. He doesn’t need to be bringing him on, taking him off and little cameos here and there.

“Let him play and give him a run.” 

Mourinho, however, is looking less likely to follow this advice by the day, as Bale continues to struggle.

The manner of the Welshman’s transformation during his first spell at Tottenham, going from a perceived flop to a surperstar seemingly in a matter of months, felt like a minor miracle.

However, a similar rejuvantion in this instance would constitute his most unlikely and greatest comeback yet.

Upcoming fixtures:

Saturday

Leicester City v Liverpool (12.30)
Crystal Palace v Burnley (15.00)
Man City v Tottenham (17.30)
Brighton v Aston Villa (20.00)

Sunday

Southampton v Wolves (12.00)
West Brom v Man United (14.00)
Arsenal v Leeds (16.30)
Everton v Fulham (19.00)

Monday

West Ham v Sheffield United (18.00)
Chelsea v Newcastle (20.00)

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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