I sincerely hope that Gareth Bale has been laughing himself silly at his critics over the past few weeks since Real Madrid lost their all-time record signing to injury. The way in which the Wales international has been under-appreciated, scapegoated and harangued by know-nothing fans or myopic pundits who think they’re doing Florentino Perez a favour in trying to force Bale out — to, say, Manchester United — is a scandal.
The past few weeks without him have added undeniable proof that whether or not Bale’s playing style is your cup of tea, whether or not you think it’s not good enough that his level of Spanish is still somewhere between beginner and tourist, Madrid have missed him enormously. After all, his absence has helped cause some of their gaping weaknesses.
This international break not only allows the chance for some who love to trample on Bale’s good name and his quality of football to admit their errors and retract some of the more infantile things that are said about him, but also for Bale to get himself in top shape for what will be a series of major opportunities via which to take Madrid’s season by the scruff of the neck.
If you happen to be a partial (or vicarious) follower of Spanish football, let me set the scene for you.
If you’ve been listening to Bale’s critics, only consuming headlines and generic “it’s being reported…” stories, then you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Wales captain had been suffering a pale imitation of a season and was the fountain from which all Madrid’s woes were springing. As Pepe noted this week, the Madrid fanbase has a hardcore, perhaps even a majority, who see it as their role to lord it over everyone else in the good times but to mercilessly hammer their own players every other minute of the year.
The concept of raising player morale by inspiring the team to defiance? The idea of saying “thank you” to trophy winning teams by demonstrating noisy loyalty through tough times?
Forget it, buster.
Given Bale’s injury problems and purchase price, he’s become the whipping boy virtually since last spring when his last major role in the season was limping off after 40 minutes in what became a 3-2 home defeat to Barcelona. From then until now there’s been mean, lowest-common-denominator whispering in the media — “Will he ever show his worth?” “Why is he injured so much?” “Look how few games Madrid get out of him” — that is contagious and affects many of the more gullible fans and observers.
What was really happening is that from the beginning of this season on, Bale was a shining beacon of light in Madrid’s performances, adding goals, assists, power, athleticism, pace, goal chances and increasing form… until he got injured again. The question, on that subject, is simple: Why are so many of Bale’s teammates now struggling with the same type of niggling, repetitive injuries which have plagued him?
Marcelo, Karim Benzema, Raphael Varane, Keylor Navas, Mateo Kovacic, Jesus Vallejo: the list is worrying and suggests a common problem. It might be time for Zidane to examine his fitness staff, his training methods and his medical practitioners, just to eliminate any causal connection. Suffice it to say: troubling and debilitating muscular injuries are no longer “solely” Bale’s problem.
What infuriates me, and should do to anyone who’s not either short-sighted, stupid or biased, is how little appreciation there has been for the level at which Bale was performing until hit by the two apparently different injuries sustained while playing for his club against Espanyol and then training with Wales.
Take the two Supercups this season. Bale played his role in the 3-1 win at the Camp Nou but was stellar against Manchester United. His sublime 1-2 wall-pass with Isco set the Spain international up for the winning goal; for good measure, Bale’s thumping right-footed shot hit the bar after a stupendous David De Gea save.
Then take not only the Champions League but Cristiano Ronaldo’s scoring form. Against APOEL at the Bernabeu, the scoreline and the three points, belong to Bale. He laid the first goal on a plate for Ronaldo, won the penalty for CR7 to get his second and then provided the set-up header from which Sergio Ramos scores the third. If it was anyone else producing that kind of performance, the Madrid media go wild with their lavishing of praise. Not for Bale.
Away to Dortmund he’s extra special. With due respect to the goal Marco Asensio scored at the weekend against Las Palmas, Bale may have scored Madrid’s goal of the season at the WestfalenStadion. I swear that his left-footed, volleyed goal from Dani Carvajal’s cross was at least as difficult as Asensio’s effort last weekend but away from home, against better opposition and in a competition where the punishment for failure is more immediate.
Take your pick: argue with me if you like. But Bale’s goal in Dortmund is better than Asensio’s against Las Palmas and need only compete with Asensio’s remarkable top-corner effort at the Camp Nou for goal of their campaign so far.
More importantly still, when was the last time Ronaldo scored twice in a game this season?
Recently (and for some time), the Portugal international (and FIFA’s “Best”) hasn’t been able to hit a barn door with a banjo, although I do think his form returned this last week. Ronaldo has played just one league match with Bale this season. But in each of the two Champions League games alongside the man who dwarfed his transfer fee, Cristiano hit a brace of goals.
As for La Liga, perhaps the apparent lack of respect for Bale’s form comes from the fact that in a couple of disappointing results (drawing with Levante and losing to Betis) at the Bernabeu, he couldn’t “single-handedly” win the points.
Away from home he was dynamite. I’ll bet the Deportivo La Coruna defenders are still having night sweats and scary dreams about his power, his finishing and his marauding runs even though they played him nearly three months ago. Goal and assist.
As for Real Sociedad? His run, control and wonderful “Phil-Mickelson-in-a-bunker” finish over Geronimo Rulli to convert Isco’s quarterback pass at the Anoeta? It was football poetry in motion.
However in this fierce and honest defence of Bale’s vital importance to Madrid, there’s a factor beyond merely the things he did for the team when he was fit but that everyone seems to have forgotten.
Bale’s absence is not not by any means either the main reason Madrid have been playing badly, nor will his return be the single solution to everything that ails Zinedine Zidane’s side. However the problems that have plagued Benzema and Ronaldo certainly owe a lot to the fact that teams can mark them differently when Bale’s not there.
Because Bale’s outrageous pace is no longer a threat, teams can push their defensive line higher, squeeze Madrid’s midfield and can leave less space between the back line and the midfield in which the two strikers would normally create so much threat. For all their skill, energy and threat, Isco and Asensio also find their creative space reduced by teams who don’t have to worry about Bale running behind them on to a long pass or running at them in a counter-attack where they’ve been caught too high.
Madrid are winning fewer headers at attacking dead ball situations and frankly, Ronaldo’s brilliant assist for Isco’s goal against Las Palmas was an identical replica of what Bale was serving him earlier this season time and time and time again.
Now here’s the rub. This looks distinctly like being Bale’s last season at Madrid. Honestly, I think he’s tired of being injured all the time and with everything else that’s being offered to him at, say, Manchester United, I think that it’ll be easy for him to be persuaded that there are clubs where he’ll be fit more often and, therefore, happier. But in the meantime, he’s got these next two weeks to hone his sharpness, get fit and get ready.
Madrid face a brilliant programme between the end of the international break and Christmas. The Derbi against Atleti, Sevilla, Athletic, and World Club Cup, where they stand the chance of winning a third trophy this season and an eighth under Zidane in less than two years.
Then comes the Clasico two days before Christmas.
Personally, I hope Bale rams the cheap, ill-advised and inaccurate criticisms he’s received from some in the media and too many in the stadium right back down their throats. If he does, Madrid’s season could look a whole hell of a lot different by the time La Liga takes its brief festive break. And Madrid might still have a chance of the six-trophy haul that beckons them this season.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World.” Twitter: @BumperGraham.