Thursday was a day to savour for Gareth Bale, as he scored his 200th career goal, 57 of which have come for Tottenham.
It was his first goal in Europe for Spurs since March 2013 against Inter and his first away from home (excluding qualifiers) since that famous hat-trick against the Nerazzurri back in October 2010.
Performances like that led Bale on the path to becoming the first €100million player, but despite his goal in the 3-3 draw with LASK, today’s Bale is a very different animal.
He returned to north London on loan after being consigned to the role of wearied Real Madrid substitute under Zinedine Zidane, but his second spell in the Premier League has barely caused a ripple.
In fact, as in-form Spurs prepare for Sunday’s derby with Arsenal, Bale has once more settled into the role of expensive bench-warmer, an impact player who is yet to make any discernible impact upon Jose Mourinho’s plans.
10y 44d – Excluding qualifiers, Gareth Bale’s penalty for Spurs was his first away goal in UEFA European competition for the club since scoring a hat-trick at the San Siro against Inter Milan in the Champions League in October 2010, 10 years & 44 days ago. Equaliser. pic.twitter.com/drmtwyHzmL
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 3, 2020
Bale would surely relish the chance to be unleashed against Arsenal – after all, he has scored five goals in 10 league appearances against the Gunners, and there are concerns about the fitness of Harry Kane.
However, given Mourinho’s comments about his players lacking “enthusiasm” for this week’s Europa League match, some of the starting XI in Austria could be fighting a losing battle to keep their places.
Bale converted Spurs’ first penalty of the match to get on the scoresheet for the second time in his second stint at the club, but his was not a display to capture the imagination. While he attempted more shots than anyone else (four), his penalty was the only one to hit the target. Moreover, he created no chances for his team-mates and only completed 14 passes in his 82 minutes on the pitch, fewer than any other starting Spurs player apart from Tanguy Ndombele (12) and Lucas Moura (nine) – and they were both substituted 17 minutes earlier.
Bale has started once in the Premier League and five times in the Europa League this season and been taken off every time. While fitness was perhaps an excuse in the first few weeks after his arrival in September, surely now he should be expected to play in, and influence, a full game.
0 – Tonight against LASK was the first time Gareth Bale has started a club match and not had either a shot or created a chance for his teammates since November 2016 for Real Madrid vs Sporting CP – tonight was his 78th start since then. Subdued. #UEL pic.twitter.com/0dIP2zxgwV
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 22, 2020
Bale always seemed like an opportune gamble rather than a signing to suit a Mourinho system, and so it has proved.
Compared with his team-mates in the Premier League, the 31-year-old has done little to justify more game time, even including his winning goal against Brighton and Hove Albion on November 1.
Bale averages close to five shots per 90 minutes, which is actually the most of any Spurs player this term, but his conversion rate of 16.7 per cent is only fifth best. Kane (18 per cent) and Son Heung-min in particular (45 per cent) are significantly more threatening from shooting positions.
His link-up play is of greater concern. In his three league games, Bale has created only two chances from open play, half as many as Giovani Lo Celso and way down on Son (11) and Kane (19). Overall, he has completed 20 passes, the fewest of any Spurs player to make a league appearance with the exception of Carlos Vinicius, who has played 12 minutes.
Bale does at least attempt three dribbles on average per 90 minutes, more than all but two of his team-mates, but he has yet to attempt a single cross from open play. If these runs with the ball do not end in a hopeful shot, they appear to yield nothing.
His level of disconnect from the rest of his team is even greater than it was at Madrid last season. In 16 LaLiga games, Bale attempted 45 open-play crosses, averaging nearly four per 90 minutes. He also attempted roughly three dribbles and nearly 36 passes per appearance.
SHOULD SPURS HAVE SEEN THIS COMING?
Mourinho, then, has little reason to thrust Bale into the starting line-up of a Spurs side presently looking one of the best in England’s top flight and on a six-game unbeaten run in home league clashes with Arsenal. Recent history would also suggest the Wales star will not seize a more regular role heading towards 2021, either.
Only once since the 2015-16 season has Bale started more than half of all matches across all competitions (he was in the line-up 51 per cent of the time in 2018-19). That season, he made 42 appearances for Madrid; in 2019-20, that number dropped by more than half (20), while he only started 14 times, or 27.5 per cent of all games.
This term, prior to Thursday’s Europa League match he started 27.8 per cent of matches and had been involved in 39 per cent overall (seven appearances), effectively the same portion as he managed last season. However, in the league, he has only played in 30 per cent of Spurs’ games (three) and started just once. Even in 2019-20, as rumours of discontent with Zidane grew and images of Bale yawning among the substitutes spread, he still managed to play in 42 per cent of Madrid’s league matches (16) and started 12 times (31.6 per cent).
27% – @GarethBale11 started just 14 of Real Madrid’s 51 matches in all competitions last season (27%), his lowest appearance rate in a single campaign since moving to Spain. Adiós. #BaleIsBack pic.twitter.com/N7uDNlbrDa
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 19, 2020
Bale’s best recent season for league games was in 2014-15, when he started 30 times (79 per cent) and made a further appearance as a substitute. He has scarcely got close to that level of involvement since. And although injury problems and issues with Zidane have been partly to blame, a fully fit Bale should realistically walk into Tottenham’s team if he had the form to back up the expectations. Mourinho, at least, appears unconvinced.
A goal against Arsenal would certainly boost his prospects, but, right now, Bale looks little more than a luxury (and dispensable) accessory to a well-oiled Spurs machine.