Gareth Bale hasn't been what Real Madrid expected when they spent a record amount to bring him over from Tottenham. Instead, the injury worries that in part led to Tottenham letting him go have risen up to make his first campaign in La Liga a mixed bag so far.
Still, with a stunning game last weekend against Villarreal, Bale is showing why he was so highly regarded.
His "redebuts," as termed by the Spanish sports paper Marca (h/t The Telegraph's Ian Hawkey), are events, but the need for them in spite of world-class sports science and sports medicine worries Real Madrid fans as much as Bale's left foot worries goalkeepers.
That Real Madrid are fighting with archrival Barcelona and crosstown nemesis Atletico Madrid despite the loss of one of their top players speaks to their depth and to the incredible season that Cristiano Ronaldo is having.
There was also an opportunity cost to buying Bale and his injuries rather than someone else, such as Luis Suarez or one of the young stars Carlo Ancelotti covets.
The question now is twofold: Will Bale be on the pitch much more than his stop-and-start play this season, and will these injuries keep him from ever meeting the expectations set by his transfer price?
At just 24 years old, Bale has plenty of time left at his peak. The young Welshman does have a history of interrelated injuries. He missed the 2012 Olympics due to a hamstring injury, and he has seen back, groin and thigh injuries at various times throughout his campaigns at Southampton, Tottenham and now Real Madrid.
The worry is that his game-changing speed will eventually be affected.
What would Bale be like if he lost a step? I asked Bleacher Report's resident tactical expert, Sam Tighe, that very question.
"Steven Gerrard is a flagship case for how a groin can destroy an aggressive, speedy, physical dribbler. He hasn't dropped into a Pirlo-esque deeper role by choice. He's done it because he is physically unable to make those classic piercing runs," says Tighe.
Gerrard hardly seems a worst-case scenario, but the adjustment period could be problematic.
Tighe further explains: "Bale could find a less physically demanding role in time, but the pressure on him as the world's most expensive player would make any sort of 'adaption' period—something like 12 months at least—very difficult for the club to bare and difficult for the fans to understand. He has the technical tools, but not the awareness and astuteness."
That's not good news for the theory that Bale could quickly adjust.
It would be much easier to keep Bale healthy and out on the wing. In his recent play, there are signs of this being the case. If Bale can stay healthy and on the pitch for any period of time, that adjustment could at least be delayed.
It should be noted that Pirlo wasn't dropped back due to injury, but instead was shifted into the role by Carlo Ancelotti, who could now do the same with Bale if necessary. That said, Bale is no Pirlo, and Pirlo never had the skills or physical gifts of Bale.
On the medical side, there is some predictability from Bale's previous injuries. Back and hamstring injuries are often connected, as are their attachments inside the body. Injure one and compensation can cause problems for the other.
Over and over in all sports, this pattern holds. Bale had exactly this and was able to come through without any apparent issues.
With a recurrent and deep quadriceps strain, Bale is likely to have some deficit there for the near term, but if he can keep it healthy through a combination of treatments, he can strengthen around the muscle. His age is a major positive here, as at just 24 he is still able to easily add muscle mass.
Real Madrid's sports-medicine staff will be using every technique at their disposal. They'll definitely be monitoring him closely, using various techniques to warm him up, to monitor his distance and sprints and then focus on his recovery.
Everything from cold lasers to nutrition will be focused on muscle condition and repair. A key part of this might be picking and choosing when Ancelotti will be able to use Bale as well.
We also have to keep in mind that this is more than just an injury-plagued season for Bale. This is his first season playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world.
He is not the first to struggle to adjust to this kind of situation, though the big-dollar transfer surely added to the pressure. His teammate, Luka Modric, struggled in his first season, but has found his way to becoming an important part in the Madrid machine.
Bale remains one of the best players in the world, but as Lionel Messi showed, it doesn't matter how good you are if you're stuck on the bench.
A great team like Real Madrid can overcome any single injury, but with Bale, they're not just great. With Bale, they become favorites.
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