What a difference three or four weeks make, eh?
Tottenham had been in the pits of despair throughout late January and into February, losing six of eight games in all competitions. The shouts of ‘It’s just top, not joint top’ had quickly vanished and been replaced by dreams of finishing in a Europa League spot.
Defeats to Liverpool, Brighton, Chelsea, Manchester City and West Ham each had their own unique point of hopelessness, but across the board there was a distinct lack of creativity and threat up front.
That wasn’t helped when Harry Kane injured both of his ankles in the same game against Liverpool and left Son Heung-min with the sole burden of scoring goals. The South Korean looked knackered and lost without his partner in crime, and neither Dele Alli nor Gareth Bale were being used by manager Jose Mourinho, be that down to fitness problems or attitude issues.
Bale in particular looked dead and buried after the Brighton game.
The Welshman was struggling with every switch of play and couldn’t find that extra yard to get his trademark shots away. He came in for scrutiny from the media, though in fairness it’s hardly as if he was sticking out like a sore thumb. Every Spurs player bar none was poor during that run of terrible form, but Bale was definitely an easy target to go after.
He had his well documented issues under Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, barely playing as the press continued to vilify his golf addiction, and it seemed extremely convenient to put Bale’s struggles at Spurs down to some kind of attitude issue.
What seemed to be forgotten, however, was the fact that he played just 20 games in all competitions last season and time would be needed for him to build up confidence in his body again due to a career riddled with injury issues – especially given that this isn’t the Gareth Bale that rocked the Premier League from 2009 to 2013 as a kid. It’s definitely not the Gareth Bale who kept rinsing Maicon on that famous White Hart Lane night in 2010.
His return sparked into life during a Europa League fixture against Wolfsberger, hardly a game befitting of a man who once scored twice in a Champions League final.
But what was most striking about the performance was just how easy it looked for him. Once again he was an enormous presence with the ball at his feet and the ease with which he took his goal, chopping back onto his left foot at the byline before whipping it into the far corner, was a timely reminder of the qualities he possesses. Wolfsberger were terrible, so the caveat of ‘it’s only Austria’s seventh best team’ was acknowledged far and wide.
Against an undoubtedly better side in West Ham, Bale gave another hint of the quality he still holds. It wasn’t the physical attributes but the footballing IQ that helped Spurs pin the Hammers back in an ultimately futile effort.
A goal from the bench followed in the return leg against Wolfsberger, but in the big wins against Burnley and Crystal Palace it was clear to see Bale had left the struggling player from the first half of the season behind.
He was playing with a refreshed Kane and Son, providing a third razor sharp edge to their attack to convert the chances they carve out.
Kane’s ability as a playmaker has reached new heights this season while Son remains happy skinning full backs on the outside, and Bale knows his place alongside them is inside the box, waiting to get on the end of their passes or even scraps.
Against Burnley, both of Bale’s goals were assisted by Son. Against Crystal Palace, both of Bale’s goals were assisted by Kane. Players like Steven Bergwijn and Erik Lamela have had their chances as the third attacker alongside Spurs’ main double act, but Bale is the one who has taken his opportunity, reminding everyone of what he’s capable of.
It’s pretty helpful when his range of passing is so good, too. In the 4-1 Palace win, Bale frequently switched play with ease, shrugging off the memories of misplaced passes in the Brighton defeat.
Frankly, it was a part of his game most fans probably weren’t aware of. To say it was Kane-esque would not be doing a disservice to the England captain, it was that good.
He’s evidently a player of immense knowhow, but most supporters knew what the deal would be when he signed on loan in the summer. Having been out of the starting XI picture at Real for so long, Bale would need time and minutes under his belt before he could get back to anywhere near his best. It was easy to toss his ability to one side and claim he was washed when Tottenham were performing poorly.
But a switch seems to have been flicked. He’s taking up the right positions and is feeding off Kane and Son, giving Tottenham a greater goal threat – so much so that his recent return of goals have helped him become their third top goalscorer in the Premier League this season. Next on the list are Lucas and Tanguy Ndombele with three each.
A top four finish is probably too hard for Mourinho’s side to achieve after that horrendous spell in January and February. Chelsea have found a consistency difficult to argue with, while Leicester and West Ham look steelier in defence.
But if they continue to manage Bale‘s minutes and play him alongside Kane and Son rather than Carlos Vinicius and Bergwijn, Tottenham will get the best out of him and probably win more games than they lose.