Well, Tottenham Hotspur’s season just got interesting, at least potentially.
I’d been anticipating a rough year (that is, if the season isn’t ended prematurely by a new national lockdown, which seems likely). An early exit from the Europa League, an early exit from the League Cup, an early exit from the FA Cup, and a tedious scrap for sixth place in the league, as part of Jose Mourinho’s seemingly wilful campaign to turn Spurs from a team that reached the Champions League final and was, albeit briefly, part of the European elite, into domestic also-rans. That will probably still be how it goes. But with Gareth Bale’s return to Spurs on loan from Real Madrid, you just never know. Bale is, if nothing else, a wild card.
I wasn’t that gutted when Bale left in 2013, in all honesty. My favourite player of that era was Luka Modric, and I was much more frustrated when he went; the good thing about Bale’s departure was that, while they management wasted a lot of the enormous windfall, they managed to sign Christian Eriksen – as close to a like-for-like Modric replacement as was available at the time, and Eriksen was the best thing about Spurs during his tenure at the club.
Bale was a very different kind of player to the guileful Eriksen and Modric. They both possessed a vision, technique and range of pass that Bale never shared. Bale, by contrast, was explosive. His approach has always been to get within shooting range as quickly as possible, then let fly. He seemingly doubled his bodyweight in the gym in his last year or so at Spurs, losing nothing in terms of acceleration, and his left-foot thunderbolts were breathtaking in their sheer ferocity. Modric and Eriksen would leave opponents dizzy as they passed round them; Bale would bulldoze straight through them. There was something bracingly unrefined about Bale’s approach to the game; he played like the kid in school too fast, too strong and too damn intent on winning to let anyone stand in his way. From what I’ve seen of his contributions to Real’s successes in the intervening years, there’s still something of that in his game.
After Modric left, the team were dangerously reliant on Bale to do everything for them, the Andre Villas Boas gameplan – give it to Gareth and get out of way – making Spurs predictable and easier for the best sides to deal with. The defection of Bale and recruitment of Eriksen restored patience, intelligence and craft to the Tottenham midfield. I was, as I say, not overly traumatised by Bale’s leaving, the more so as he wasn’t leaving for one of our domestic rivals.
But with Spurs once again becalmed after a run of excellent seasons (the loss of Eriksen; the replacement of Mauricio Pochettino as manager when his record should have made him unsackable), the team is in need of something – anything – to give them a spark. The returning Bale might just provide it. How he’ll play with Harry Kane is yet to be seen; in his last seasons at Spurs, Bale seemed to be coveting the Cristiano Ronaldo role, in which he was both creator and goalscorer. But the horrifyingly stodgy Tottenham midfield needed a boost. Even if all he does is follow his old boss Harry Redknapp’s strategy – “fucking run about a bit”, for those of you who have forgotten – that might make a difference.