Again, an opportunity to side-track from the off-field distractions. Even if ultimately another stats or tactics article might seem like an aberration with what's going on off the pitch, it's always important to focus on what we all would really love to focus on, and that's football, in its purest form.
Gareth Bale leads La Liga in assists
It's an underrated subject. When you think of traditional play-making maestros, it's easy to envision players who play a bit deeper - just behind the attackers. Just two seasons ago, Di Maria, Cesc, and Koke led La Liga in assists - all three of them played in midfield. Last season, this notion got flipped on its head, and Messi and Ronaldo dominated the assists category. Of the top six assist leaders last season, only one player - James Rodriguez - was a midfielder, the rest were strikers and forwards. This season is following the same trend, with Gareth Bale leading the way with six assists.
The assist leaders in La Liga are directly and consistently involved in their team's attacks, and their assist numbers are directly correlated with the amount of chances created. For Real Madrid, Gareth Bale has been the focal point in attack, and this is not subjective. Whether you like it or not, the attack largely goes through Bale. For Barcelona, it's been Neymar as the focal point, and while both players respectively lead their teams in assists, they also are the most important players in attack. Per 90 metrics (the most just way of looking at it, since there have been injuries a long the way to key players in both teams), Neymar creates the most chances in Barcelona, while the only player in Real who creates more chances than Bale is James Rodriguez.
"When I played for Tottenham, I felt I played my best football there and, when I play for Wales, I play there and play my best football. For me, that's my position and it's where I want to play",
The World laughed when Gareth Bale suggested his best position is the #10 slot. While Rafa doesn't have Bale there in a fixed role, he has given priority to accommodating Bale in a free-role, which sees Bale often swap wings or even come down the middle at times. This is something I have pointed to before (here and here), that whoever coaches this club has to give Bale this autonomy in order to fully utilize his skill-set and keep defenders guessing. Keeping Bale on the right side only limits him.
*For more info and stats on BBC's high usage this season, check my article from a few days ago
The above article notes that over 80% of Real Madrid's goals come from Bale, Benzema, and Cristiano. This is despite Benzema and Bale missing large chunks of the season due to injuries. To take this one step further, Bale (again per 90 metrics, to even out the playing field) is second in goals scored, and Benzema leads the front three. Of the three, Bale's total attack score is the highest. More information on this statistic here.
So, quietly, Gareth Bale is having a really productive season, and he's doing it within the flow of the offense without over-complicating things. Benitez's offense largely goes through Bale, who's main contribution comes from the flanks rather than his 'preferred' central role. Bale roams. He can swing in an early cross with pace and accuracy that's hard to deal with from either flank, or he can cut in and shoot from the right. He's making a habit of this, which essentially habituates defenders to anticipate the cross, making the occasional run in behind the defense (he leads the attack in successful take-ons) more unpredictable and problematic to deal with. A Bale that runs at this kind of offensive efficiency is the one Real Madrid had hoped they signed, the one Zinedine Zidane described as "born to play for Real Madrid", and the one that makes Bale such a force with Wales under Chris Coleman.
What should we take away from Bale's quiet resurgence? That the team can and should rely on him more. As the dependency on Ronaldo gradually decreases, Bale's role within the offense rises. It already has risen as a focal point, but will continue to do so moving forward. The player who Real Madrid need to get more involved now is James Rodriguez - but this requires a separate article on its own. James - despite being disgruntled and masked in Benitez's scheme - is clinical. He's underutilized though, which points to another reason Ronaldo should be cashed in on sooner rather than later - to make way for the rise of James and Bale.
This was all a prelude to the show. Below, find gifs of all of Gareth Bale's assists this season. Enjoy.