5 Areas for Gareth Bale to Improve on with Real Madrid Next Season
After an exhilarating first 12 months at the Santiago Bernabeu, the Welshman battled through a difficult second campaign in the Spanish capital. Out of form, low on confidence, whistled at by the Bernabeu and the focus of a media furore between Marca and the BBC, Bale found criticism and controversy wherever he went in 2014-15.
Statistically, of course, his season was nowhere near as bad as many declared it to be. The 25-year-old finished with 19 goals and 11 assists in all competitions, playing a halfway role between midfield and attack in Carlo Ancelotti's hybrid 4-4-2/4-3-3. But missed opportunities, a regular feeling of detachment and an inability to replicate his trophy-winning feats of 2013-14 really dented his campaign and saw pressure consistently mount on him in Chamartin.
Across the following slides, we examine five areas in which Bale can improve that would help him turn it around and possibly make his 2015-16 season a success.
Gareth Bale's left foot is a hammer. With it, he's among the purest strikers of a ball in the game, able to leave goalkeepers rooted to the spot as they watch fearsome blows scream past them.
But though it's a weapon, Bale's left foot is also a weakness in a sense. So strong it is, that he's come to depend on it. Rely on it. Become somewhat one-sided.
In 2014-15, opposing defenders consistently forced him away from his favoured left side, seeing the Welshman, from his starting position on the right, regularly settling for pushing the ball down the sideline before poking a cross into the box with the outside of his left boot.
Of course, his stuck-in-the-middle, undefined positioning didn't help him last season, but an inability to turn onto his right side and hurt teams also made him predictable. And Bale has admitted it's something he needs to improve.
"I can improve everything, and working on my weaker foot is the main thing," he told the Telegraph's Charlie Parrish in November.
That improvement needs to take another step in 2015-16.
Examining the patterns in Gareth Bale's goalscoring since moving to Real Madrid is revealing. In two seasons in La Liga and the Champions League (the only competitions for which there are detailed statistics), the Welshman has scored 35 goals.
Just four of them have come with his head. Compare that to Cristiano Ronaldo, who scored 16 goals with his head in 2014-15 alone.
Naturally, the pair's positioning has a large bearing on such numbers, with the Portuguese's evolution into a No. 9 seeing him play far closer to goal than Bale. Consequently, he should score more headed goals. Yet, the discrepancy is still too large; these are players who should have similar aerial strength.
Bale, like Ronaldo, is a supreme athlete, full of power and explosive qualities. The Welshman is also very similar in stature to the Ballon d'Or winner—taller than your typical winger.
Bale, therefore, should be a greater aerial threat than he is. Particularly at set pieces, his combination of power, jumping ability and size should lead to more headed goals. But, oddly, it doesn't.
It's an obvious area for improvement.
One of the things that defined Gareth Bale's difficult 2014-15 season was how removed he often felt from the contest. There was an air of timidness that surrounded him on the pitch, with his body language often subdued and dejected.
In that sense, it was in great contrast to what we saw from Bale from in 2013-14, a season full of images in which he's roaring, pumping fists and full of fire.
Naturally, form and confidence play big roles in one's disposition, and the storm that followed the Welshman last season wouldn't have helped.
But Bale needs to get back to that smile-on-his-face football, with every act full of exuberance, intensity and unrefined thrills.
The picture above is from Real Madrid's clash with Espanyol, when Gareth Bale opted to go it alone and miss when he could have squared the ball easily to Cristiano Ronaldo—the moment that saw the criticism directed at Bale from the Bernebeu stands reach its height.
But many will also remember other high-profile missed chances against Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus in the season's run-in. Unfortunately, such missed opportunities became a theme of Bale's season. And a closer look at the statistics shows that finishing is an area the Welshman needs to work on.
In La Liga in 2014-15, some of the leading forwards' shot-accuracy numbers, per Squawka, were as follows: Carlos Bacca at 71 percent; Lionel Messi at 64 percent; Aritz Aduriz at 59 percent; Neymar, Antoine Griezmann and Alberto Bueno at 57 percent; Carlos Vela at 56 percent; Ronaldo and Mario Mandzukic at 54 percent; Karim Benzema, Luciano Vietto and Luis Suarez at 53 percent; Jonathas at 51 percent.
Bale, however, was down at 46 percent.
He needs to join the league's other elite forwards at a mark that's 10 percent higher.
"What the people were asking for," wrote Guillem Balague here at Bleacher Report amid the height of the criticism directed at Gareth Bale "was more work without the ball, more tracking back, more sweat in midfield, the occasional evidence of a defensive shift at the sharp end, rather than just a place in the spotlight on the main stage."
It's an important point for Bale, for his lack of defensive graft was a common gripe among fans. In 2014-15, he ranked 16th at Real Madrid for tackles, per WhoScored.com, 16th for interceptions, 14th for clearances and 11th for blocks. And in not one category did he average one of those actions per game.
The players who get onside with any fanbase are typically the ones who showcase a desire to scrap and fight at both ends. It's one of the reasons why Isco, who made more than double the tackles Bale did last season, has become the darling of the Bernabeu—there's a two-way commitment to his play.
If Bale wants to be viewed similarly, adding defensive graft to his explosive game in attack is the way to do so.