Gareth Bale, Spurs, and the perfect reunion

(Image courtesy of Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)

Having resigned for Tottenham Hotspur on a season-long loan almost a month ago, Gareth Bale looks set to make his second debut for the club this weekend.

When he left seven years ago, the Welshman bowed out to become a Galactico off the back off an extraordinary 2012-13 season, in which he became the third player to win the double accolade of the PFA player and young player of the season awards. He went to Spain, racked up an incredible set of achievements, and now returns to a club which has had an up and down journey (to say the least) in his absence.

At its core, Bale’s return to Spurs feels more than a sentimental move, one that suits both the club legend returning home and the club who helped him to fulfil his world-stage potential also getting an elite level player to bolster their squad.

But this move certainly feels significant, and the hype surrounding Bale’s decision to swap Madrid for London once more feels, for the destination club at least, like a fusion of two eras — the post-Bale era spearheaded by Harry Kane, Mauricio Pochettino and the like, and the new-look Spurs he returns to bolster, now of course under the management of José Mourinho.

When Bale left, having scaled the heights of the Premier League and virtually single-handedly carried an average André Villas-Boas side with 21 goals in 2012-13, he and the club he departed went in quite different directions. As Bale ended the following season (his first in the Spanish capital) as a decisive goalscorer in victorious Champions League and Copa del Rey finals, Spurs plateaued under the doomed to fail “supply teacher” Tim Sherwood.

By the end of that month, Sherwood had been replaced by Pochettino and Bale was scaling the heights of world football, celebrating playing a vital part in bringing Real Madrid their much coveted “La Decima” in Lisbon. 

Fast forward to 2020 and Bale’s experience in Madrid had drastically changed. Despite leaving Los Blancos in a cloud of self-accentuated ignominy — the less said about the Spanish champions’ treatment of Bale and his, at times, puzzling reaction, the better — the body of work of Bale’s Real career must surely be remembered for stellar performances on the pitch. When Real needed the Welshman, just as he had needed them to take the next natural step-up in his career seven years ago, he made the difference. Now, it seems there is a mutual relief to see the backs of one another.

The move is initially for a season, but could presumably extend beyond that depending on Bale’s impact on the team’s success and, in turn, the club’s ongoing ability to make the deal work financially. The winger’s return has the potential to be a bridge between the aforementioned eras in Spurs’ recent history and to smooth out the cracks which arguably still remain from the fallout of the transition from Pochettino to Mourinho’s Spurs.

Real broke the bank to secure Bale’s services in September 2013 in what was one of the most ground-breaking modern transfer sagas. There was a tangible sense of pride among followers of British football at seeing a player who had reached an elite level on their shores being the subject of a then-world record-breaking transfer fee. Undoubtedly, Bale tops the list in terms of British football’s finest exports, having scored 56 goals and made 58 assists in 203 appearances for Spurs and, prior to that, netting five times in 45 matches as a rising star at Southampton.

On Monday, Spurs released a video of Bale in full training, seemingly gearing up for his second debut at the club where he truly began his rise to superstardom. His debut could well be against West Ham this Sunday — conjuring up memories of that goal versus the Hammers in his extraordinary final season in the Premier League — and by the look of it, the Welshman is more than ready to remind English fans of his brilliance. He certainly has a point to prove to anyone that has forgotten the extent of his abilities given the turbulent and prolonged end to his stay in Madrid.

Bale’s memorable strike against West Ham was one of the highlights of his stellar 2012-13 season. It was a campaign in which Bale became only the third player to win the PFA double accolade of Player and Young Player of the Year in the same season. (Image courtesy of PA).

Contrary to what may be expected, Bale’s return has still split the Spurs fanbase, with some fans adverse to the idea that others are significantly satiated by.

 “I think there is obviously that shade of doubt in Bale, with three goals in 20 games last season and him being 31 years old,” says Dan Huggins, sports media outlet VAVEL’s Spurs dedicated journalist.

“Compare that to last season in the summer where we almost signed Bruno Fernandes, Paulo Dybala and Philippe Coutinho; there is that element of doubt about whether Bale can still perform consistently at the very best level.

“So I can understand that, but equally the man is a machine. His body’s condition, his passion and class is all still there, so I am confident he will come back to Spurs and get back to that top level again.”

Aside from the understandably sentimental feelings of Spurs supporters regarding the impending re-signing of Bale, there is an argument to be had that this was simply the sort of opportunity that could not afford to be passed up. If you ask Liverpool supporters about the importance of signing a current world-class player in Thiago, guaranteed to improve the first 11, the majority would say certainly. Man United supporters would have been similarly boosted by the signing of Jadon Sancho, before that deal hit the rocks and was apparently never likely to happen given the approach taken by United’s hierarchy.

“Out of the two incomings, I don’t think Bale is the signing that will cause the most change to the team. I think it will be Sergio Reguilón. Spurs now have [Matt] Doherty on the right and Reguilón on the left, who are both attacking wing backs, which suggests a change to a three-back formation. I believe Bale will be used as a right winger throughout the season, but don’t be shocked to see him transition into a striker as he hits the twilight of his career,” Huggins says. 

If it is widely accepted that Spurs have gone out of their way to offer Bale a chance to resume playing at the highest levels of European football, it remains to be seen whaat he will provide them. The questions have already started: ‘What version of Bale will Spurs get back?’, ‘Is he past his best?’; ‘Could he replicate his unstoppable, PFA player of the year award-winning form of 2012-13?’

Huggins views the potential benefits of the deal from the club’s perspective are wide-ranging.

“I think this signing is a huge boost to Spurs on all fronts. The fans love him, shirt sales will be through the roof, and for a lot of these players — particularly the homegrown players — it will be a dream to play alongside Bale. He’s a serial winner, he knows how to perform on the biggest stages and in the biggest games and I think he instantly makes Spurs a competitive side again. Don’t write them off for the FA Cup or Europa League.”

Another arising discussion point surrounding the four-time Champions League winning star’s return to North London is the prospect of his relationship with Spurs’ deadly duo of Harry Kane and Son Heung-min. The two have already combined directly for seven goals this campaign and the addition of Bale would complete a forward line to, on paper, rival any other in the league. 

“I think Bale, Kane and Son will work far better than any other three-man attack at Spurs. Bale and Son are shooters; they will pull the trigger when they have the space to do so, but they are all about creating space too, which I think Kane will benefit from,” Huggins surmises. 

“I expect to see Kane feeding off rebounds and tap-ins plenty this year and his workload will be lifted. Elsewhere, [Tanguy] Ndombele is the perfect central midfielder for Bale to link-up with: Ndombele may not have that work rate yet but his forward thinking and ability to get past a challenge and thread the needle with a through ball will make Bale incredibly dangerous for Spurs.”

Certainly, Bale’s winning mentality will be a big boost for everyone at Spurs. At the start of the Amazon Prime documentary on the club’s 2019-20 season, Mourinho is seen telling his players in no uncertain terms that they are not winners. Bale will provide a sprinkle of the absent winning mentality, with the proof in the pudding being his body of work in the past seven years.

If nothing else, it will be fascinating to see how things play out, for both sides. What is sure is that Bale’s return to the club who nurtured his career from boy to man is a statement of mutual intent. It feels like the perfect reunion.

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