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Gareth Bale’s time to prove himself as a leader is running out

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Will the Welsh deliver?

Denis Doyle/Getty Images

After an encouraging debut season for Real Madrid, the supporters were waiting to see what Gareth Bale could do with a full pre-season under his belt. His second campaign with the club was nothing short of a disappointment however, as he showed a worrying lack of determination and leadership that ended up hurting Real's chances of winning a title.

His career in the Spanish capital started seamlessly. Bale scored Madrid's title-winning goals in the Copa del Rey Final and also in the Champions League Final against Atletico Madrid, overcoming injuries early that season. He did not know his teammates and yet he scored 22 goals over 44 games, assisting his teammates in 19 goals as well.

Bale's second campaign with the club was worse, just like it happened to Madrid as a whole. His 17 goals and 12 assists in 48 games are not enough for a player of his caliber, especially when his debut season was far more impressive. He also disappeared in big matches, contrary to what happened in the 2013/2014 campaign.

After Madrid's crucial loss against Valencia on January 4 - that game stopped Real's winning streak --, Bale received too much criticism and a reputation of being a ball hog and not caring about the team's collective performance. This happened because Bale decided to finish one play on his own and missed instead of going for an obvious pass to Cristiano Ronaldo, who was unmarked and ready to score. The Welsh attacker let those rumors affect his game and started to look for passes when he had the chance to shoot or dribble past defenders. The fans at the Santiago Bernabeu also bought into that theory and whistled him whenever he made a mistake, and Bale even celebrated one goal by covering his ears with anger towards those whistles.

Florentino Perez decided to spend €94 million on Bale hoping that he could become Cristiano Ronaldo's successor in Madrid's offensive system. There's nothing wrong with his stats, given that the Welsh has scored 39 goals and delivered 31 assists over 92 appearances. Those are very decent numbers, but he is yet to influence the team's performance the way both Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema do.

Perhaps this is related to how isolated he was on the right wing. Former Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti refused to play Bale elsewhere even though he was clearly uncomfortable in that position. Most defenders in La Liga knew that they had to give Bale the option to dribble to his right because his crosses with his right foot weren't accurate at all. They had the formula to stop Bale, but Ancelotti still refused to try him in different positions and give the Welsh more freedom.

New Madrid manager Rafa Benitez seems determined to take care of that, as Bale has played behind the striker in all four games played by Real Madrid throughout this pre-season. It's true that he has finished Madrid's stage in Australia and China scoreless, but his performances have improved ever since he was deployed there. After all, that's the position where Bale had his breakout season with Tottenham Hotspur, when Andre Villas-Boas wanted him to be more than just a classic left-winger.

Still, Bale also needs to be more vocal and passionate off the pitch. It's clear that he is a shy person and he doesn't speak fluent Spanish yet, and those two things do not let him become the leader he wants to be. Right now he is an outstanding complementary player, but Bale has enough quality to be the star in any given team.

This season might be Bale's last chance to prove he can be the leader of Madrid's attacking system once Cristiano Ronaldo enters his decline. It seems reasonable to question whether he will be able to become that man or not, but the best thing Benitez can do is give him the freedom he needs and a fair shot to show what kind of player he is.