Seven years ago, Gareth Bale left Tottenham, becoming the most expensive player in the world at the time as he joined Real Madrid. On Saturday, he returns to complete a loan move back to Spurs, a deal that ends his own weird personal exile from the game and, Tottenham will hope, gives a much-needed boost to a season that started lethargically with a deeply worrying 1–0 defeat to Everton.
The narrative appeal of Bale’s return to North London is obvious. He is the prodigal son, the player who first transformed Spurs into a side that could compete in the Champions League. He's back to try to arrest the slide that began with a lack of investment as funds were diverted to the construction of the new stadium, continued with the dismissal of Mauricio Pochettino and has continued even further with the drab functionality of the José Mourinho days.
Although Tottenham after Mourinho’s arrival had the fourth-best record of any Premier League side last season, the football was dispirited, and there was little sense of progress, statistics boosted by a late-season run of form as other sides switched off that saw Tottenham clinch sixth place and a spot in the Europa League. Last Sunday was a wake-up call, as Spurs were outplayed by an Everton side demonstrating the benefit of new signings. A scrambled win over Lokomotiv Plovdiv in the Europa League qualifying rounds on Thursday will have done little to soothe nerves.
Bale’s thrust in wide areas should at least offer some penetration, and his pace theoretically will be well-suited to Mourinho’s counterattacking game plan. But any attempt to assess how he may perform is highly speculative, given how he has recently become effectively an ex-footballer. He also won't appear for Spurs until after the October international break, the club revealed, as he continues to recover from a knee injury suffered with Wales earlier this month.
Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane has seemingly never entirely been convinced by Bale, even as he produced decisive contributions in three successive Champions League finals under the Frenchman. It was after the 2018 final, when Bale scored twice—including an extraordinary overhead kick—in a 3–1 win over Liverpool that it became apparent just how serious the breakdown was, with players and coach seemingly falling over themselves to announce their unhappiness and desire to leave.
Cristiano Ronaldo went and Zidane went, leaving the stage clear for Bale, but he didn’t seize his opportunity. When Zidane returned, he found himself slowly marginalized. He would probably have joined the Chinese club Jiangsu Suning last year only for Madrid suddenly to insist on a transfer fee that caused the deal to fall through. He has played only 411 minutes of club football this year, his most notable contribution being when he used his face mask to cover his eyes and pretended to sleep while on the bench. Perhaps the outcry that provoked was exaggerated, but equally the gesture hardly suggested a player desperate to regain his place in the starting XI.
Bale’s time at Madrid had clearly run its course, but he had fallen into that category of gilded player who is essentially too expensive for anybody to buy—a problem heightened by the financial circumstances of the pandemic. But equally Madrid has been desperate to offload a player that costs the club almost $50 million a year in salary (including tax). Tottenham, clearly, cannot afford that, so Madrid will be subsidizing his wages while he is on loan. The deal is expected to cost Spurs around $20 million. His Real Madrid contract runs through 2022.
It’s also become apparent over the past few months that Bale, at 31, is no longer burning with desire to play football. That’s not to say that he is in any way unprofessional, merely that he isn’t gripped by the intensity of some players. The joke that his priorities read "Wales, golf, Madrid—in that order” is not without substance. Mourinho needs to re-inspire him.
But for all those doubts, the prospect of a front three of Bale, Harry Kane and Son Heung-min is undeniably exciting. Bale and Kane have played together before, but for a total of only 15 and a half minutes (including injury time) over two games—a league game at home to Newcastle and an away Europa League match against PAOK. They should be able to dovetail, not just with the wide men crossing for Kane, but Kane dropping deep to feed runners beyond him.
Bale will be joined by left back Sergio Reguilón, a $35 million signing from Real Madrid who spent last season on loan with Sevilla (the deal reportedly includes a $53 million buy-back clause that Manchester United was not willing to meet). Given Ben Davies’s struggles to handle James Rodriguez last Sunday, that is a deal that is long overdue, and it means that with Matt Doherty, Spurs have a pair of high-class attacking fullbacks for the first time since Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier were at their peak.
Tottenham badly needed something to shake it from its slough; Bale, at least, is a sign of ambition.