“I am not sure there is ever a good time to leave a club where I felt settled and was playing the best football of my career to date,” said Gareth Bale was he was unveiled as Real Madrid’s latest ‘Galactico’ signing in 2013. “Many players talk of their desire to join the club of their boyhood dreams, but I can honestly say, this is my dream come true. I am now looking forward to the next exciting chapter in my life, playing football for Real Madrid.”
And when Bale has been out on the pitch for Madrid, it’s been a joy to watch him. When you consider their honours list in the four years prior to him joining and the four since, there’s a stark contrast in fortunes. Domestically less so, but in Europe, Madrid have reigned supreme in the Bale era.
Bale is a history-maker at Real Madrid
Three Champions League titles in four years is a remarkable achievement. The first one perhaps being the most significant. Sergio Ramos scored the last gasp equaliser to force it to go into extra time but it was Bale who got the crucial goal to put them ahead. His thunder was taken by a shirtless, out-of-form Cristiano celebrating a penalty in the final minute but it was Bale’s goal which broke Atletico Madrid’s spirit.
In the previous month, against eternal rivals Barcelona no doubt, Bale was once again the game-changer. With the score level at 1-1, it was the Welshman’s rapid turn of pace which left Marc Bartra for dead before slotting the ball past Jose Pinto. The Prince of Wales was making a strong claim to be the new king of Madrid.
So why, three years on, are we seriously talking about Madrid cutting their losses on Bale? One word: Injuries.
That first season was his most productive and significant for the club as he avoided any lengthy time on the sidelines. There wasn’t a question of if he could replace Cristiano Ronaldo, but when. And this was during the time Cristiano was scoring 50+ goals for fun, such were the high expectations of Bale.
From hero to villain
His second season was less spectacular and while injuries weren’t a problem, the team’s alarming drop in form was. In preseason there was a drastic difference when it came to Bale’s appearance. The Welshman spent a lot of time in the gym, building up his strength. Some people were concerned this could effect his pace.
While Bale was struggling his teammate/rival Cristiano, as he tends to do, responded to the criticism of the previous season by scoring over 60 goals. This made him immune to blame as Madrid ended the campaign with just the UEFA Club World Championship to their name. There was no LaLiga, Copa del Rey or Champions League triumph. This came after a bright start where they’d won 22 consecutive games before Christmas.
Bale was now the villain. The press – and the easily manipulated fans – turned on Gareth and blamed his selfishness for the loss of form which cost them a clean sweep of titles. Carlo Ancelotti, too, was in the firing line despite winning La Decima 12 months previously. The 4-3-3 which saw them go on that winning streak was now outdated.
Cristiano cut an unhappy figure, often when Bale didn’t pass to him. The mood changed and it was a brief glimpse into what life can be like at a club such as Madrid.
In fine form when available but his injury curse begins
It was in 2015 where concern truly set in. When available, Bale was on fire. He scored 19 goals in 23 LaLiga appearances but he missed over a third of the season through various injuries. In the Champions League it was his cross that Fernandinho deflected into his own goal to see Madrid make the final. In that final Bale assisted Ramos’ opener before scoring in the shoot-out.
Yet 2016 proved even more frustrating for Bale and his attempts to stay fit. He missed 19 of the 38 LaLiga matches via injury and suspension – a whopping 50%. And that was even more painful when Madrid went on to win LaLiga despite the Welshman’s frequent absences. He played no role in the UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup victories and a limited part in the Champions League.
Despite all this Bale still signed improved terms at the Bernabeu in 2016, extending his deal until 2022.
Time for Madrid to cut their losses?
Whilst publicly the stance from the club is the same regarding Bale and his future at Los Blancos, reality paints a different picture. It goes beyond how good a player is and instead how often you can use said player. No one doubts the Welshman’s ability, not even his staunchest critics, but his injury record simply isn’t good enough. You can’t depend on him.
This season it appears those problems still persist and you worry if this is now a player who will suffer from chronic injuries. He’s missed 10 of the opening 19 fixtures for Madrid and the latest setback could see his return delayed until 2018. If that’s the case Bale would miss another 10 fixtures, including the entire Club World Cup again. Oh, and El Clasico.
Could Bale make a sensational return to Spurs?
The obvious link would be a move ‘home’ to high-flying Tottenham Hotspur. We all know there’s a deep connection with the club, and Daniel Levy, despite the ugly exit. Bale would add more firepower to Spurs’ attack and, even if not available every week, would be a wonderful option to have.
However there’s a lot of flawed logic in this hypothetical scenario. We all know how much Mauricio Pochettino demands of his players, fitness wise, to make his starting XI. The Argentine isn’t afraid to field a less popular player if they’ve shown enough in training to warrant a start. Is it wise to push an injury-plagued forward to his limits on a daily basis?
The other obvious stumbling block is the Welshman’s wages. He’s currently earning just below the threshold of Messrs Ronaldo and Messi. Spurs are proud of their wage cap and implore future signings to buy into the project as opposed to the riches on offer elsewhere. Bale would need to take an 60-70% pay cut to re-join Spurs. That doesn’t sound likely, does it?
Could Mourinho finally get his man?
There aren’t many options available to Bale other than England though. Manchester United were in the market for a winger in the summer and Bale was their main target. This never came to fruition but with the asking price now set to be lower, a deal could be resurrected.
This would put United in an uncomfortable position when it comes to their current wide attacking options though. Anthony Martial is after more playing time since slipping behind Marcus Rashford and the potential arrival of Bale would further limit his chances. Is Bale a wiser option to have than the young Frenchman?
Chelsea could offer Bale an escape route too
Another option could be Chelsea. It’s difficult to predict who will be in charge of the club next summer but he’d slot right into their first team. A combination of Bale and Eden Hazard behind Alvaro Morata is as strong as an attacking trio as you’ll find. We know wages wouldn’t be an issue either.
Even for those two sides, where money is no object, there needs to be some revisionism when it comes to Bale though. The majority of his recent injury record is down to muscle tears and ligament damage, not impact related ones. The Welshman has missed 63 games in the last two and a half seasons, and that’s expected to surpass 70 – potentially 80 – before the end of January. That’s on average over 25 games per season.
At what price is he worth the gamble, notwithstanding his match-winning ability?
There’s no question that Bale’s time at Real Madrid has been an overwhelming success. He played a key role in their history and won everything he set out to. However, deep down, there will always but the question of ‘What if..?’ due to his unfortunate injury record at the club.
The Prince of Wales will never become King.