“It goes autumn, winter, spring and then Gareth-Bale-is-reportedly-joining-Manchester-United season.” That’s what nursery teachers might as well start teaching kids, so frequent have the summer rumours concerning Gareth Bale’s future become. This year it has been reported at different points that the potential arrival of Kylian Mbappé, the more regular inclusion of Isco or the explosion of Marco Asensio’s form have worried the Welshman enough for him to want to return to the Premier League. It must be said that these are genuine concerns for Bale to have, but much more likely is that he’ll stay in Madrid and confront them head on. But how will he do that? What role does he have in this new-look Real Madrid?
Whether or not Los Blancos do sign Mbappé – who is now said to be closer to Paris than Madrid – or another attacking player, Bale’s once-non-disputable spot in the starting XI is under threat. The injuries he suffered over the course of the 2016/17 season – when he played just 27 of the team’s 60 matches and when he missed the whole of the crucial month of May – saw Real Madrid alter their system slightly, to Bale’s cost. Rather than always automatically opt for the 4-3-3 formation with the BBC front three, Zinedine Zidane started to play a 4-3-1-2, with Isco taking Bale’s spot and performing excellently in a No.10 role, slightly behind the front two of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.
Proving just how keen he was on that tactical setup, Zidane employed the 4-3-1-2 in Real Madrid’s first game of the LaLiga season, a 3-0 victory over Deportivo La Coruña. As a result of Ronaldo’s suspension, Bale did get to play alongside Benzema up front, with Isco just behind, and he did score a goal – although it should be pointed out that it was a simple tap-in, following a howler from the Depor ‘keeper. Yet when Ronaldo returns, Bale will surely be the one to make way, assuming this system is maintained.
Yet another threat to Bale’s playing time is the form of Asensio, who scored a long-range wonder goal in each leg of the Supercopa de España victory over Barcelona. He too is knocking on the coach’s door for playing time and there is a belief in Madrid that the BBC is set to become the ABC, with Bale the one dropping out. That’s because the expectation is that when Isco is rested, injured or suspended, he’ll be replaced by Asensio, not by the former Tottenham man.
Despite all of this, both the coach and the player are remaining optimistic. “He had few chances last year due to the four months of injury,” Zidane said last weekend in reference to the 28-year-old. “Now he is well, and he has enjoyed some very good preparation, so I hope it’s an important year for him and for us.” As for Bale, when asked about the fact it was becoming increasingly difficult to make the lineup, he viewed it as an exciting challenge and a positive. “That is why I am here,” he told MARCA in July. “We all want to play and we all work hard to win our places, but we’re not just 11 players. Zidane wants to keep rotating and will give options for everyone. We won LaLiga and the Champions League thanks to the rotations, as it gave us a lot of freshness and it’s a great method of working because the players have time to recover.”
Perhaps, then, Bale is ready to embrace the bit-part role, still keen to play, but at the same time aware that he was probably playing too often beforehand and that this was putting too much pressure on his fragile calves and ankles. If Wales are to make it out of their World Cup qualifying group then there’ll be a trip to Russia in the diary next summer and Bale could enjoy yet another successful major tournament if he arrives in peak physical condition.
Winning never gets old and if Real Madrid are able to keep racking up titles thanks to Zidane’s famed rotations then all players, including Bale, should be content to sacrifice some playing time for freshness and success. If, however, Bale finds himself on the bench at the same time as the capital city side are losing, tensions could grow. Just in time for next summer’s transfer market gossip.