What does Gareth Bale want from his final years as a professional footballer? He does not lack for cash in the bank, and he is not short of silverware in his trophy cabinet. He has already guaranteed his status as one of British football’s most successful exports, while his service to his country has ensured he will be loved in Wales for the rest of his days.
Money, titles, reputation, adulation. Bale has it all, and the impression he has given over the last few years is that he is perfectly happy with his lot. Now 31, the Welshman has seemed quite content to savour his final few seasons as a Real Madrid player, winding down his career, playing golf when he can and enjoying the life he has made for himself and his family.
As such, Bale has not always behaved like a man with unfulfilled ambitions in football. His attempts to move to China last summer, for example, were not the actions of a player who feels he still has the required hunger and drive to succeed at the highest level of the sport.
But it seems that something has been simmering beneath the surface all this time, some hidden flame that has not yet been fully extinguished by the peculiar politics and passions of Madrid. For all his complaints about footballers being treated like “robots”, and for all his unhappiness about his treatment from the club and its fans, it appears some love for the game has remained in Bale after all.
“I want to play football,” he said a few weeks ago, in comments that came as something of a surprise given the regular insistences from his camp that he had no intention of walking away from his luxurious life in Madrid. “I am still motivated to play football. I am only 31 but I feel I am in great shape and feel like I have a lot to give.”
All of a sudden, with no prior indication, Bale has decided he wants to return. And Tottenham Hotspur, his old love from the past, are standing there with open arms. As footballing romance goes, it is a cheering tale: the awkward young lad who became the unexpected star, departed to conquer the European game and then returned for one final flourish.
Romance never lasts long in football, though, and the truth is that Tottenham will not be getting the same player who they sold in 2013, should a deal be struck. This is a different Bale, an older Bale, a more fragile Bale. It is also a different Tottenham, with a new goalscoring hero in town and a new manager to impress.
The Bale who blew the Premier League to pieces in his final year at Tottenham, all rippling muscle and searing speed, has been changed by age and injury. The old explosiveness will never return, but the technical ability remains and with his experience comes leadership. He has matured into the undisputed on-pitch leader of Wales, where he has revelled in his status as an older head among a talented group of youngsters.
In Bale, Tottenham will be signing a player who has worked alongside some of the greatest winners in world football. One does not spend so many years with Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos without learning a thing or two about mentality, toughness and footballing resilience.
Bale has been part of a win-at-all-costs environment, full of the sort of “intelligent c----” that Jose Mourinho wants to bring to north London. If he can provide even a sliver of that title-winning know-how to a group of players who have famously won no titles, it would be reason enough to get him on board.
On the pitch, there is the mouth-watering prospect of Bale partnering with Harry Kane and Son Heung-min in a three-pronged attack. Bale has primarily operated on the right in recent years, apart from when he has played centrally for Wales, and he would undoubtedly provide a more dangerous attacking option than the likes of Lucas Moura and Erik Lamela.
The Bale of 2020 is a more considered player than the Bale of 2013, however. His game has adapted during his time in Spain, and he cannot be reasonably expected to replicate those driving runs from his younger years. Indeed, it is clear that Bale’s game has become less dynamic with each passing season.
In his final campaign at Tottenham Hotspur, when he was named PFA Player of the Year, Bale attempted 4.47 dribbles per league match. In the following season, his first at Real Madrid, he attempted 5.79 dribbles per league match, seizing any opportunity to run at defenders and head straight for goal.
Since then, though, those metrics have gradually declined. In each of the last three seasons he has attempted fewer than three dribbles per game, on average. In the last two campaigns he has attempted 2.56 and 2.89 dribbles per match, half the amount he was attempting in his early years in Spain.
A key question for Tottenham, or indeed any potential suitor, is whether this is the result of his natural evolution as a player, or the consequence of his injury troubles. Since moving to Madrid, Bale has sustained problems with the following areas of his body: hamstrings (twice), ankles (four times), calves (seven times), abductors (twice), thigh and knee.
This is not to say that Bale has lost all of his speed. As recently as the 2018/19 season, he was torching full-backs for pace, leaving them in his dust and finishing firmly into the corner. But he has had to learn when to use that power and how to manage his body.
At least there can be no questioning the quality of Bale’s touch or the assuredness of his finishing. Given his exile at Madrid, we have seen this most clearly in his performances for Wales. Against Croatia at the start of last season, he produced a sublime set of touches to score a glorious goal for his country.
Bale has long been known for his physical prowess, of course, but this remains a man of extraordinary technical ability. His overhead kick in the Champions League final of 2018 is arguably the greatest goal in the history of European football, given the size of the occasion and the quality of the finish, and there is no suggestion that Bale has lost his eye for goal.
What had been lost, or so we thought, was his hunger and motivation. If we were all wrong, and Bale is indeed determined to fight and scrap like he did in his prime, then Tottenham could be about to sign a potentially transformative player. Just don’t expect him to be the same player who left them seven years ago.