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Bale’s Back in N17: Charting The On-Field Evolution of Tottenham’s Returning Hero

 

Having recovered from injury, Gareth Bale is set to make his Premier League return this weekend. Ahead of his much anticipated second Spurs debut, Stats Perform applies numbers to look back on his career progression to date, from Championship full-back through to all-time leading British goalscorer in LaLiga.

 

By: Andy Cooper

2,574 days after swapping White Hart Lane for the Bernabéu, Gareth Bale finds himself back in N17 after agreeing a loan move back to Tottenham for the remainder of the 2020/21 season.

Since he last graced the Premier League back in May 2013, the Welshman has gone on to break the record for most appearances by a British player in LaLiga, winning two league titles in the process, as well as pocketing four UEFA Champions League winners medals, equaling the European Cup/UCL record for a British footballer set by Phil Neal in 1984. He also played a key role in Wales’ run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016.

As well as gracing a new stadium, Bale joins a Tottenham team vastly different to the one he left, with Hugo Lloris being the only survivor of the eleven who started his last Premier League game. He is also likely to adopt a different role to the one Spurs fans will remember during his first spell, where he terrified opposition right-backs with his pace and athleticism down the left hand side. However, one thing we have learned about the 31-year-old is his ability to adapt, having started out as a left-back at Southampton before progressing to more advanced roles with Spurs and Madrid.

A combination of injuries and falling out of favour with Zinedine Zidane has resulted in Bale only featuring in 413 on-field minutes across all competitions at club level since the start of 2020. Could his return to English football, as part of a potential front three alongside Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane, result in a return to the form which made him the world’s most expensive footballer seven years ago?

Ahead of his second debut with Tottenham, we look back at the key numbers in his career to date, charting his evolution as a player and reminding us of what he can bring to a side eyeing a return to the Champions League, as well as looking to end a thirteen year wait for a trophy in 2021 – the club’s longest period without winning a major competition since the 1950s.

Early Days and Getting Established in the Premier League

 After making his first team debut for Southampton towards the latter stages of the 2005/06 season at the age of 16, which was shortly followed by his senior international debut a month later, Bale demonstrated the goal threat posed by his lethal left foot on the opening day of the 2006/7 campaign, when he scored his first senior goal courtesy of a direct free kick against Derby County. He went on to score a further three goals from direct free kicks for the Saints, which accounted for 80% of his entire goal output during the season.

His performances in the Championship at St. Mary’s resulted in his first move to White Hart Lane in May 2007. He started his Spurs career promisingly, scoring twice in his first eight league appearances, including another direct free kick in his first North London derby. However, after suffering an injury in a defeat to Birmingham City before Christmas, he missed the rest of the campaign and upon his return to full fitness, found himself playing second fiddle to Benoit Assou-Ekotto in the left-back position. In fact, it wasn’t until September 2009, more than two years after moving to London, that he first tasted victory in the Premier League, breaking a famous 24 game hoodoo with a late cameo appearance in a 5-0 win over Burnley.

With Assou-Ekotto being preferred to Bale in Tottenham’s first choice eleven, there was speculation that the Welshman would be on his way out of White Hart Lane, with a loan move to Birmingham City even being mooted. However, an injury to the Cameroon international at the end of the year gave Bale a chance to stake his claim for an extended run in the team and since then, he hasn’t looked back.

In reality, any loan move was unlikely to materialise, given Assou-Ekotto was due to be away in January anyway to play in the 2010 African Nations Cup. But in the eight games Assou-Ekotto was out of the side, Bale created 1.1 chances from left-back per 90 minutes, and perhaps more significantly, was involved in 4.4 take-ons per 90 down the wing, which ranked him second in the side to Luka Modric but with a superior success rate to the Croatian (60% vs 55%). As means of comparison, prior to his injury Assou-Ekotto was only attempting 1 take on per 90.

Bale’s ability to beat a man in wide areas saw his manager, Harry Redknapp, push him forward into a more advanced position on the left hand side of midfield once Assou-Ekotto returned to full fitness. From then on, he only started another six league games at left-back for Spurs, as he evolved from being an offensively minded full-back to a direct winger carrying a significant goal threat.

Becoming Tottenham’s Talisman

After moving into midfield, Bale scored three goals and provided four assists during the latter stages of the 2009/10 season, including vital strikes in back-to-back victories over rivals Arsenal and Chelsea which helped Tottenham secure Champions League football for the first time.

During the next three years, his goal involvements increased season-upon-season as the club asserted themselves as mainstays in the Premier League’s top six, consistently challenging for a European place.

Bale’s Goal Involvements For Tottenham: All Competitions

SeasonGames PlayedGoalsAssistsGoal Involvements
2007/200812303
2008/200930022
2009/20103431013
2010/20114111718
2011/201242121224
2012/201344261137
Competitive Record203554297

Between the start of 2010/11 and the end of the 2011/12, only Rafael van der Vaart scored more goals (26) in the Premier League and European competitions for Spurs than Bale’s tally of 20. He also ranked second to the Dutchman for assists during the same period (16 vs 13), including two in Spurs’ memorable 3-1 Champions League win over Internazionale, which resulted in fans famously chanting ‘taxi for Maicon’ from the stands at White Hart Lane.

Across these competitions, only Modric created more chances (174) than Bale (152) during the two-year period. Both Modric and van der Vaart left White Hart Lane in the summer of 2012 and it was their departures which resulted in Bale’s performances going up another notch.

In his final season at Spurs, Bale was involved in 37 goals in all competitions for the club (26 goals, 11 assists) – only Robin van Persie (39) and Juan Mata (49) were involved in more for a Premier League club in 2012/13. Towards the latter stages of that season, his coach, Andre Vilas-Boas, started to utilise Bale in a more central attacking role behind a striker, which resulted in him scoring eight Premier League goals in his last eleven matches.

In total, he averaged 5.1 shots per 90 during the season, the highest output of his career to date. Only Harry Kane, on three separate occasions, has scored more goals in a single Premier League campaign for Tottenham than Bale did in the final season of his first spell.

Although Spurs narrowly missed out on Champions League football at the end of 2012/13, the impact of Bale’s goals can be measured by the number of points it secured for his side, 24, a figure which has only been bettered by three other players in the history of the Premier League.

As well has helping his side win games, Bale also set a Premier League record for goals scored outside the box (9), eclipsing the eight scored by Matt Le Tissier in 1994/95 and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink in 1998/99, a record which still stands to this day.

By the time he departed English football, Bale was one of only four Premier League players to have won the PFA Players’ Player of the Year on two occasions, after Alan Shearer, Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo. He is also only the second Premier League player to win both this award alongside the Young Player of the Year award in the same season, alongside Cristiano Ronaldo.

Making A Mark In Madrid

Following a prolonged transfer saga, Bale finally completed his move to Real Madrid on 1st September 2013. In doing so, he became only the third Welshman to play in the Spanish top-flight, after Mark Hughes (Barcelona: 1986-87) and George Green (Espanyol: 1935-36).

With Cristiano Ronaldo operating on the left-hand side of a front three in Carlo Ancelotti’s preferred 4-3-3 system, Bale slotted into a position on the right wing with Karim Benzema playing at the central striker.

Despite having to adapt to a new system and role, the Welshman hit the ground running in his first season at the Bernabéu. Continuing his form from his final season in England, Bale was involved in 38 competitive goals in 2013/14 at the club (22 goals and 16 assists). Only Ronaldo (65) was involved in more at the club that season, with Bale level with Benzema (38).

The threat posed by this trio is reflected in their respective goal involvements since the Bale’s arrival in Spain. No other Real player has been able to match their outputs between September 2013 and the summer of 2020.

In April 2014, Bale scored the winning goal in the final of the Copa Del Rey, as Real defeated Barcelona 2-1. This was the first major honour of the Welshman’s career and a little over a month later, he was on the scoresheet again in the Champions League final, netting in extra time as Real secured their first European title in twelve years, beating Atletico Madrid 4-1.

The following campaign saw Bale feature in 48 matches in all competitions, his highest season total for Real, but he was unable to match his goal and assist output from 2013/14 as Real missed out on domestic honours and the Champions League title. He did have the consolation of being able to add UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup titles to his growing CV.

Injuries restricted Bale to only 31 appearances in all competitions in 2015-16, but in terms of his LaLiga outputs per 90 it was his most productive domestic season in Spain, averaging one goal and 0.5 assists per 90. One standout from the campaign was that nearly 50% of his 19 league goals came from headers (9), highlighting how he now possessed a significant aerial threat to go with his ability on the ground.

Despite his efforts, Real missed out on the title that season by one point, but they once again excelled in Europe with Bale winning his second Champions League title after Real prevailed in a penalty shoot-out, again at the expense of Atletico, with Bale scoring from the spot.

Bale’s Goal Involvements for Real Madrid: All Competitions

SeasonGames PlayedGoalsAssistsGoal Involvements
2013/201444221638
2014/201548171229
2015/201631191231
2016/2017279312
2017/20183921627
2018/20194214620
2019/202020325
Competitive Record25110557162

Injuries again affected Bale’s fourth campaign in Spain, which denied him any involvement in Real’s title run-in as the club finally secured its first LaLiga title in five years. He was however fit enough to take a place on the bench in the Champions League final, making a late appearance in their 3-1 victory over Juventus. It was the first time he had recorded single figures for goals and assists in his Real Madrid career, but he would return to form with a vengeance in the following campaign, as he again showed his ability to adapt.

The Kyiv Super Sub

Having been utilised predominantly on the right wing in his Real career up to that point, 2017/18 saw Bale play as a centre forward for the majority of his time on the field in the 4-3-1-2 formation adopted by Zinedine Zidane. The change resulted in him scoring over twenty times in all competitions for the first time since his first season in Spain.

With Ronaldo missing a number of games through injury and Benzema suffering a dip in form, scoring only 5 league goals from an expected goals (xG) tally of 13.2, Real slipped to third place in LaLiga. Despite scoring three times in Real’s final two league matches, he was left out of the starting line-up for the Champions League final for the second successive year, with Benzema being preferred for the clash with Liverpool.

Bale was introduced by Zidane in Kyiv with half an hour remaining, with the scores tied at 1-1, and within three minutes he had scored the most memorable goal of his career – meeting a cross from Marcelo with a spectacular bicycle kick to give his side the lead.

Bale went on to make the game safe with a second goal from distance with seven minutes remaining, following an error from Liverpool keeper Loris Karius. In doing so, he became the first British player to score at least twice in a single Champions League final, joining six other players to have achieved the same feat.

Bale’s Spanish Legacy

Despite his exploits in Kyiv, Bale was unable to inspire Real to further glory following the departures of Zidane and Ronaldo from the Bernabéu following the 2018 final. Three different head coaches oversaw Real during 2018/19, Julen Lopetegui, Santiago Solari and a returning Zidane, as they finished the campaign 19 points adrift of Barcelona in LaLiga, again finishing third.

After falling out of favour with the Frenchman, Bale was close to moving to China last summer, but after the deal was called off at the eleventh hour, he stayed in Spain for another season. He earned a second LaLiga winners medal in the process, but featured in just two out of twelve possible matches post-lockdown, signaling the end of his time in Madrid.

Despite the low-key nature of his final months in Spain, Bale leaves behind an impressive legacy. In scoring 105 goals in all competitions for Real Madrid, he is one of only 21 players to have scored 100+ goals for the club in all competitions, with only 16 players scoring more for the club overall. His output even eclipses that of the Brazilian legend Ronaldo, who scored 104 times for Real.

With 80 league goals, Bale is the top scoring British player in LaLiga history, having overtaken Gary Lineker’s tally of 42 following his strike against Sevilla in March 2016. He also has the most LaLiga appearances of any British player with 171. David Beckham ranks second with 116.

Since his first season in Spain, only five players have been involved in more LaLiga goals than Bale.

Now back to full fitness after recovering from a knee injury sustained on international duty, Bale will be hoping to remain injury free as he looks to regain the form he showed earlier in his career. However he returns to London a different player to that who graced White Hart Lane previously – he hasn’t scored a goal from outside the box in over two years and since the start of 2017/18, has not averaged more than three dribbles per 90 in a season, compared to his career peak of 6.2 in 2010/11.

Bale also had fewer ball touches in his final three seasons in LaLiga, never exceeding more than 55 touches per 90 in a campaign. As means of comparison, his lowest season total in his first six years at Spurs was 62.9.

He will now line-up in a Tottenham side adopting a vastly different approach in possession to that seen during the Pochettino era, with Spurs under Mourinho allowing their opponents a larger share of possession and looking to hurt them in transition, breaking away at pace when attacks break down.

This playing style would be an ideal fit for the Bale who operated in wide areas to devastating affect for Spurs and Real in the mid-2010s, but until he takes to the field on Sunday, only Mourinho knows what role he will adopt. But irrespective of whether he is used on the left, right, or in more central areas, Spurs fans will be hoping that alongside Kane, Son and fellow loanee Carlos Vinícius, he can inspire the club to glory both domestically and abroad, as they look to end their long wait for silverware.