What would it take for Gareth Bale to once again become Gareth Bale? That was the question before Tottenham when the club considered re-signing its former star at the start of this season.
An endless parade of injuries, a frosty-at-best relationship with the manager, an inability to fully integrate with the culture in the locker room, and the undefined but undeniable (and a little unfair) sense that his expectation-freighted move to Spain had been a bust, had all conspired to rob Bale of not only the ability to play his best soccer, but also seemingly his will to even attempt to reach those heights. Yet in spite of all that, Tottenham did go ahead and sign Bale on loan, making the bet that a return to the club that nurtured his ascent from left-back prospect to superstar forward would allow Bale to regain some modicum of the game-breaking talent that for years made him one of the five or 10 best attackers in the game. On Sunday, for at least one match, that bet paid off.
In Tottenham’s 4–0 win against Burnley this past weekend, Bale was at his electric best. He had a hand in all four goals, scoring the first by flexing the canny off-ball movement that made him such a killer in the penalty box at his peak, assisting the second by raking a stunning pass down half the pitch to a streaking Harry Kane, getting something like a hockey assist on the third, and scoring the fourth himself with a quintessentially Bale counterattack curler. Maybe the most encouraging section of the following highlight compilation, one that’ll have Spurs fans’ tongues wagging about what might be to come, comes 35 seconds in.
There, Bale picks up a loose ball in his own third, circles his way out of pressure, jogs down the touchline while sizing up a defender, then knocks the ball past said defender and Marc Bartras his ass. Now on the sprint, Bale flicks a pass to Kane, whose feint and control completely hoodwink a defender, giving him space to send a pass onto an onrushing Son Heung-min. Son then shepherds the ball into the final third, and plays a pass out wide to Bale, who has caught up to the play. Son’s pass is a little too strong, taking Bale a hair too wide, and by this point Burnley has gotten enough bodies back in decent defensive position, so Bale’s eventual cut-back doesn’t find Kane, and the attack dies. It didn’t end in a goal or even a shot, but the fearsome combination of those three players, and the effortless display of Bale’s famous scorching speed, is a tantalizing glimpse of how deadly the Tottenham attack can be with all three fit and in form.
In the man-of-the-match performance, Bale proved that even at 31 years of age, even after those bizarre lost years in and out of the first team at Real Madrid, he can still be the Bale of old. The clear thrill Bale felt at once again being the very best at this thing he’s dedicated his life to, and the great big smiles he’d flash after every goal or good pass or near miss, was remarkably heartening to see. Even more concerning than watching a jaded and disinterested Bale play poorly for Madrid over the past few years was watching Bale play so joylessly. Getting to see Bale back being himself and smiling while doing it has made the homecoming more than worth it in this neutral’s eyes.
The question now becomes where Bale goes from here. Being able to hit those Prime Bale heights in a single match is one thing, but doing so for a long stretch is another—and it’s the latter that will determine whether or not Bale is truly back, and if Spurs won its bet. After all, Bale has long delighted in reminding people what he can still do, which you could see in the wry, self-satisfied grins he’d show during otherwise subdued celebrations after he’d score some worldie during a rare moment both out of the Madrid dog house and off the training table. Bale mustering the effort to be Bale for a moment or two is nothing new, and a single game of the real Bale, coming two-thirds of the way through the season, is paltry compensation for the wages Tottenham is paying, and for the potentially career-reseting opportunity before him.
If Bale is serious about revitalizing a career he came a whisker away from more or less giving up on (remember, if Bale had had his druthers, he’d be a highly paid curio in China right now), it’ll be what he does after the Burnley match that determines it. As neat as it was seeing Bale back, happy, and at his sensational best for a whole match, there will be something a little sad if it turns out we only got to see that Bale for one more day.