This is a reaction to today’s Bale news. Sergio Reguilon talk will come tomorrow. As always, my column is here.
Tottenham Hotspurs have swooped in ceremoniously, somewhat late to the game — but early enough yesterday — to showcase their proposal to Real Madrid to take on Sergio Reguilon by accepting a buy-back clause that Manchester United wouldn’t agree to. United watched as Tottenham descended from their throne and air-dropped themselves into negotiations. United lost leverage. Daniel Levy, Tottenham chairman, then dangled some low-hanging fruit in front of Florentino Perez, whispering: ‘Give us Bale too’. Tottenham head coach Jose Mourinho, in today’s press conference, said that he was the main man responsible for Gareth Bale showing up at Real Madrid after he left the club, stating: “The president followed my instinct and my knowledge and the season I left he brought Gareth to the club. There’s no secret to that. Even Gareth knows that.” Mourinho closed by saying “But I’m not going to speak about him anymore because he is a Real Madrid player.”
Of course, Jose Mourinho and Gareth Bale never got to work together, and that they will get to now, some seven years later and well past both of their peaks, seems like a reach from Tottenham — a reach that most Real Madrid fans will take without much hassle.
But it is an intriguing gamble to take from Spurs. It is not an easy task to resuscitate the apathetic corpse of Gareth Bale, one that has disintegrated from high-flying, unstoppable athletic phenom, to a by-passer walking through the motions of a football match before he clocks out of work for the day. Mourinho is many things, and in 2020, an outdated manager stuck in the early part this decade. But one thing he will not tolerate is apathy, and as much as both player and manager are dinosaurs (one from a tactical perspective, the other from a health and motivation context), throwing Bale into a counter-attacking system where wingers thrive on defending the flanks and bursting in transition the other way, might actually work. As much as Real Madrid fans are relieved to lose Bale’s salary for a year, Tottenham fans have reason to be excited about how this might work for them. The excitement could quickly turn into resentment if Bale isn’t revivable — but even if Jose Mourinho is not exactly a long-term thinker, the Bale commitment isn’t a long-term one.
(We’re still awaiting details on the financial gymnastics required to get Bale to Tottenham if it happens. His agent, Jonathan Barnett, reported today that “It’s close but not done. It’s a complicated deal.” It may not be as simple as Tottenham taking Bale’s salary, or even half of it, for a year. But Real Madrid don’t have huge leverage on this note, as their alternative reality was to pay Bale’s salary in its entirety without playing him.)
Whatever way you spin it, it is a sad ending for Bale at Real Madrid. To be sure, it was going to be sad regardless of the outcome, whether China, Tottenham, or an extended uncongenial stay in Madrid. You have to reverse engineer this scenario multiple years to trace the initial spoiling point. You could perhaps pinpoint one pivotal moment which started to distance all involved parties: Bale’s ‘appearance’ against Barcelona in April of 2017, in a pivotal game. Bale missed about a month of football prior before returning just in time for that Clasico (he played 60 minutes in a La Liga game as a warm-up prior), then limped off the field after 28 minutes. Up until that point, Bale was riddled with injuries — but on that particular day things started to boil. Zidane’s frustration was that this was a permanent issue: Bale was not available, even when he was. You could not rely on him. All his football was played with the Welsh national team, and little was left of him in between those stints. Whoever’s fault it was, it was a discouraging reality to deal with.
With hindsight, all of this is easy enough to rearrange: Real Madrid should’ve sold Bale after the Champions League final in Kiev, where Bale scored one of the greatest goals in Champions League history, then scored another (racking up four goals in major finals over the course of his Real Madrid career). He showcased everything: that he still has athleticism, he still has balls, and he’s still in his peak. His value skyrocketed during that substitute appearance against Liverpool. That final, with everyone high, was the seal on the European trilogy. Everything unravelled from that point: Cristiano Ronaldo left. Zidane left. Bale stayed. Then Bale got comfortable, lost his drive, had his physical health plummet, and the infection spread.
(As always, breaking things down in hindsight is an easy exercise. What happens in the moment is a different reality. As I wrote in a mammoth preview before that Champions League final, starting Bale in that game would’ve been the right call, and there were plenty of valid reasons to keep the Welshman around for the ensuing season. A main issue that arose was that each ensuing season became worse than the previous one, making his contract more immovable as time wore on.)
The 2017 Clasico, and the decline after Kiev, are two pivotal moments in the Bale - Real Madrid relationship. The bluntness of his agent over the years didn’t help — neither did the 180-turn last summer when Bale had (basically) gone to China only to remain in the squad. Zidane then was cursed with a player who had thought he was sold, and the relationship could never return to its initial primal point. Zidane and the players reportedly felt the energy-suck from Bale’s spiritual absence from the team even if physically he was part of the training.
That energy can poison younger players too, especially those in direct competition with Bale — all of whom have a case to play over the Welshman. Zidane, justifiably, doesn’t want to reward Bale with minutes over hard-working young wingers with offensive verve. If you pepper in Bale minutes sporadically throughout the season, you’re playing worst-case scenario: Playing a cold Bale without rhythm — an undeniably high-risk ploy — while others who need minutes watch on. As I said on a recent podcast, you’re either ‘all in’ or ‘all out’ on this version of Bale. It was hard to find any team wanting to go all in. Tottenham might be the outlier.
The last time Gareth Bale played for Tottenham, he slung 2.3 key passes per game, generated five shots per game, and scored 26 goals. It’s hard to believe that version of Bale still exists. If Tottenham can unearth that Bale, this is a heist that works out for everyone. It’s worth noting though, that they too, need reviving.