It’s been a strange couple of months for Gareth Bale.
Despite Bale’s 11 goals in the league (the second highest total for Madrid by a long way; the next best are Isco and Asensio with 6), the news is awash with rumors, opinion pieces, and reports on Bale’s performances and mental state in the wake of his declining position within the squad hierarchy. The consensus seems to be that Bale has performed poorly since coming back from injury and thus deserves his place on the bench. This has given space for the likes of Marco Asensio and Lucas Vázquez to shine, purportedly pushing Madrid to greater heights.
But is the narrative really that simple? Has Bale really been so poor and have Madrid been that much better without him? And if so, is that because of his own failures or the result of external factors?
Looking at the Way Bale Has Been Deployed
In order to adequately answer these questions, we must take a critical look at Bale’s performances within the context of the roles and systems he has been deployed in.
Gareth Bale’s Performance Info. Since Dec. 23, 2017
|FC Barcelona||La Liga||Sub||18'||Right-midfielder||4-4-1 (Red Card for Carvajal)||0||0||L, 0-3|
|@Numancia||Copa del Rey||Start||61'||Left-winger||4-2-3-1||1||0||W, 0-3|
|@Celta||La Liga||Start||84'||Striker||4-4-2 Diamond||2||0||D, 2-2|
|Villarreal||La Liga||Start||70'||Striker||4-4-2 Diamond||0||0||L, 0-1|
|Deportivo||La Liga||Start||82'||Right-winger||4-3-3||2||0||W, 7-1|
|@Valencia||La Liga||Start||69'||Right-winger||4-3-3||0||0||W, 1-4|
|@Levante||La Liga||Start||66'||Right-winger||4-3-3||0||0||D, 2-2|
|Real Sociedad||La Liga||Sub||17'||Right-midfielder||4-4-2||0||0||W, 5-2|
|PSG||Champions League||Sub||22'||Striker||4-4-2 Diamond & flat 4-4-2||0||0||W, 3-1|
|@Betis||La Liga||Start||73'||Striker||4-4-2 Diamond||0||0||W, 3-5|
|@Leganés||La Liga||Sub||14'||Striker||4-2-3-1||0||0||W, 1-3|
|Alavés||La Liga||Start||90'||Left-midfielder||Flat 4-4-2||1||0||W, 4-0|
|Espanyol||La Liga||Start||81'||Striker||4-2-3-1||0||0||L, 1-0|
|Getafe||La Liga||Start||90'||Right-winger||4-2-3-1||1||0||W, 3-1|
|@PSG||Champions League||Sub||14'||Striker||Flat 4-4-2||0||0||W, 1-2|
|@Eibar||La Liga||Start||90'||Striker||4-4-2 Diamond||0||0||W, 1-2|
|Girona||La Liga||Sub||20'||Left-midfielder||Flat 4-4-2 & 4-2-3-1||1||0||W, 6-3|
|@Las Palmas||La Liga||Start||90'||Left-midfielder||Flat 4-4-2||2||0||W, 0-3|
|Atlético Madrid||La Liga||Start||90'||Striker||4-4-2 Diamond||0||1||D, 1-1|
|Juventus||Champions League||Start||45'||Striker||4-4-2 Diamond||0||0||L, 1-3|
|Athletic Bilbao||La Liga||Sub||21'||Striker||Flat 4-4-2||0||0||D, 1-1|
Upon coming back from injury, Zidane introduced Bale back into the side with a substitute appearance in El Clásico. The Welshman got to play on the right-wing, but there was little he could do considering that Madrid had already conceded and gone a man down. Not holding this result against him, Zidane gave Bale an extended run in the team; six consecutive appearances from the start of January till early February. Against Numancia in the Copa del Rey, Bale played on the left; providing the opening goal and putting in a solid performance in a heavily rotated side that looked stale and tactically inept. His form seemed to get better in the next match vs. Celta, as he bagged a brace whilst being deployed as a center forward in a 4-4-2 diamond. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a spectacular performance. He looked uncomfortable in such a position; he had 8 touches that led to a loss of possession, a mere 2 shots, and only 1 key pass.
However, Zidane - probably looking at Bale’s goal haul vs. Celta - decided to deploy him in the same role and in the same system vs. Villarreal. It didn’t work, as Gareth was completely anonymous and Real came away with a 1-0 loss. Things returned to normalcy against Deportivo La Coruña, with Bale notching another brace. He looked far more involved cutting in from the right-wing in a 4-3-3, as he was sixth highest in touches and managed 3 key passes and 3 dribbles.
Seeing this result, Zidane decided to run with the 4-3-3 with Bale on the right for two more games. But, even when accounting for Zizou’s shaky tactics vs. Valencia (for one, Real Madrid were extremely shoddy when playing out of the press), Bale still put in an average performance. It was the same story vs. Levante, except everyone played poorly this time around.
This is where Zidane decided to bench Bale and reduce the Welshman’s importance within the squad hierarchy. Given Bale’s recent lukewarm form in his preferred position, this was not a sacrilegious decision. Additionally, the results without Bale seemed to justify his exclusion; even if Real Madrid still didn’t look pristine.
From then on, Bale was in and out of the squad and was mostly deployed in league matches in order to strategically keep the likes of Asensio, Lucas, and Isco fresh for the bigger Champions League games. Gareth made his return vs. Betis, but struggled to make his case as a striker in a 4-4-2 diamond. He managed to hit the woodwork once and found some joy on the flanks, but, in general, he looked out of place.
A return to a more natural position as a left-midfielder in a flat 4-4-2 paid dividends for Bale and Zidane. Against Alavés, Bale was the best player on the pitch - 1 goal, 3 key passes, and a team-high 7 dribbles - and once again looked involved and in his element. That got Bale another start vs. Espanyol, but he put in his worst performance of the season as a lone-striker in a 4-2-3-1. He looked uncertain of the runs he needed to make and clueless as to how to get involved. Luckily for Bale, this didn’t stop him from starting vs. Getafe, where he got back into form as a right-winger in a 4-2-3-1. He snatched a goal, hit the woodwork, and dished out three key passes.
Despite this, he was still forced to look on from the sidelines vs. PSG, as Asensio and Lucas shined in a 2-1 away win in Paris. Bale then got his expected start vs. Eibar as a striker in a 4-4-2 diamond, but he joined his teammates in putting up an average performance (it took a Ronaldo brace to pull Madrid out of the well for the three points). A substitute appearance vs. Girona followed (where he scored as a left-midfielder in a flat 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1), before he strung three consecutive appearances together against Las Palmas, Atlético Madrid, and Juventus.
In the first of those matches, Zidane changed things up by deploying the Welsh Samurai as a left-midfielder in a flat 4-4-2. 2 goals, 8 shots, 2 key passes, and a man of the match performance followed. Bale’s role changed again vs. Atléti, as he played as a striker in a flat 4-4-2. Despite appearing uncomfortable, he found some joy on the left-wing and produced 5 key passes and a gorgeous assist for Ronaldo’s goal.
This likely influenced Zidane’s decision to keep Bale in the lineup in the same role in a 4-4-2 diamond vs. Juventus, but the decision was a disaster. Gareth made no impact whatsoever and was subbed out at half-time and Douglas Costa ripped the diamond to shreds.
The consequence was a return to the bench for Bale and a substitute appearance vs. Athletic Bilbao (Real’s most recent match). He logged 21 minutes as a striker in a flat 4-4-2 and failed to play a significant role in Madrid’s late comeback.
The above analysis reveals a very clear theme - Zidane has repeatedly misused Gareth Bale. Out of Bale’s 7 starts as a striker, only 2 returned tangible outcomes: 2 goals and an assist. And even in the games where Gareth produced, he still looked uneasy and out of his element. In the 7 games where Bale started out on the wing, 5 of those games returned tangible results: 7 goals. In those games where he scored, he looked more involved and his dribbling and chance creation numbers were markedly better.
But that isn’t the only way in which things have been made difficult for Gareth. Zidane has failed to play Bale in a consistent system and role. The Welshman has played in four different formations (a 4-2-3-1, a 4-3-3, a flat 4-4-2, and a 4-4-2 diamond) and six different positions since returning from injury (LM, RM, LW, RW, ST alongside Ronaldo, lone-ST). This doesn’t even account for the inconsistencies in attacking style, pressing, and defensive structure that have plagued Zidane’s team all season. Thus, it’s evident that Bale has not been given a stable platform to shine from.
We must also question whether Real Madrid have really looked that much better without Bale. Real managed a decisive 5-2 aggregate victory against a hapless PSG, but looked decidedly average vs. Juventus. It took a superhuman performance from Ronaldo and a late penalty to drag Real into the semifinals, and Madrid’s league performances haven’t been all that different without Bale in the side.
However, that does not necessarily mean that Bale was wrong to be benched initially. As mentioned before, in Bale’s longest run of starts as a winger, he failed to come up with a series of good performances. That alone may be a good enough reason to switch things up and give the in-form Lucas and Asensio chances. But Real’s shifty performances since then and Bale’s form on the wing begs the question as to whether it is smart to continue to leave Bale out of the lineup.
That is a much more difficult query to answer, but one thing is certain; Zidane’s continuing decision to play Bale as a striker is an egregious oversight. Gareth cannot make the link-movements necessary of a second/deeper forward, is uncomfortable receiving with his back to goal, and is unable to provide a goal-impact when deployed up front. In many ways, this insistence on playing Bale where he is worst has prevented the player from making a strong case to return to the starting eleven.
Regardless, whether Gareth becomes a regular starter again or not, this issue must be rectified in order to get the best out of him when and if he plays. Until then, blame for Bale’s inconsistent form cannot fall squarely on his shoulders.
Is Zidane misusing Bale as a striker?
This poll is closed
Should Bale return to the starting lineup in big games?
This poll is closed
Yes, but as a winger
Yes, but as a striker
All statistics taken from whoscored.com.