By the end it had become savage, an underwhelming season that had fuelled simmering frustration culminating in hyperbolic reactions and rage. "Gareth Bale, the Invisible Man," ran one of Marca's headlines in May. Seven weeks earlier, another had read: "Bale's disappearing act." The former had followed the Welshman's quiet showing in Real Madrid's clash with Juventus in Turin; the latter coming after a similar display in El Clasico against Barcelona.
In the aftermath of that Clasico defeat, AS declared that "68.3 per cent of fans want Bale out of the starting 11," footage later emerging of fans attacking his car outside Madrid's training ground in Valdebebas. When Real Madrid were eventually knocked out of the Champions League on their own patch by Juventus, Marca labelled Bale's ongoing presence in the XI amid a form slump as one of the Real's "seven deadly sins."
A season of potential had concluded in anguish. Bale finished it watching from the bench as Los Blancos ripped Getafe apart at the Bernabeu. On the pitch that afternoon, his team-mates put together a characteristic display of awing power, but one not translating to anything greater. Bale sat on the periphery, his year summed up.
Little more than a month later, as Rafa Benitez closed in on the vacant managerial position at the Bernabeu, Marca's message for the new boss was simple: "Job #1: Getting Bale's mojo back."
There's an evocative image from Bale's first season at Real Madrid, one that neatly captures his essence. It came from a clash with Sevilla in October 2013, a game in which Bale opened his scoring account at the Bernabeu following a highly criticised performance in his first Clasico.
The image shows Bale roaring toward the crowd, fists clenched and in mid-stride. The pose is dramatic. Behind him are five scattered defenders—two are sitting on the ground; two others have their heads down. It's a picture of force. Might. Bale looks like a fearsome athlete, a natural and untamed creature who's blown a rival apart with an eruption of power.
In Madrid that night, he was dubbed the "cannon."
Real Madrid want that Bale. The barnstorming one. The explosive one. The real one. But in 2014-15, that isn't who he was.
In Carlo Ancelotti's hybrid 4-4-2/4-3-3 formation, the 25-year-old was neither here nor there, wedged in an uneasy middle ground between being a third forward and a fourth midfielder. He was cramped and without the space in which to charge and bolt. Alongside silky technicians James Rodriguez, Isco, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, he looked heavy-footed. Unpolished. Almost clumsy.
A thoroughbred trying to race in a stable.
New faces at the Bernabeu in 2014-15 brought about changes in shape, system and style, Ancelotti's team growing more technical and precise with each game that passed. Such a shift demanded Bale be someone he isn't—a midfielder of guile, vision and deft touches. His strengths wasted and not catered for, the former Tottenham star saw his confidence, conviction and clarity of purpose evaporate, all of it serving to bring back the memory of one of Marca's most memorable headlines from the early weeks of the Welshman's time in Madrid: "This is not the Bale we've seen on YouTube."
The Bale they had seen on YouTube was that galloping one at White Hart Lane. The one who, as wonderfully described by the Guardian's Barney Ronay, played "in a bespoke kind of forward-stormtrooper role, a position that has no traditional label but might best be described as Sprinting Happy Run-Shoot Man or Lone Attack Stampede Humiliation."
To harness his gifts, Real Madrid need to let Bale be that guy. The club forked out €100 million on a remarkably unique talent but last season asked him to do remarkably ordinary things. What's the point in that? It's like buying an endangered cheetah as a pet and training it to collect the mail.
What Madrid need to comprehend is that Bale will never be a velvety smooth all-rounder. He'll never possess textbook technique. He'll never have a subtle switch. He'll never have eight different speeds at which to operate. He'll never be another Cristiano Ronaldo. Bale is his own breed, an extraordinary athlete who also just so happens to be able to do extraordinary things with a football. Let him do them.
When Real Madrid signed Bale, he'd spent a season basically functioning as a warp-speed, one-man battering ram. It was football based on instincts, something primal and not defined systems with pigeonholed roles. There was almost a Michael Jordan mentality to it: Give him the ball and get out of the way. That's the "YouTube" Bale, the one of freedom and blissful, unrefined thrills. Benitez and Real's job is to turn him into that again.
Yet doing so will require a change in mentality at the Bernabeu. Real Madrid need to put aside preconceived ideas of systems, shapes, positions and balance and think unconventionally in regard to Bale.
The Welshman can't be classified or branded and put in a box, expected to thrive in a narrowly defined role full of rules and restrictions. Free spirits don't work that way. Instead, the answer lies in doing away with convention and thinking counterintuitively, allowing Bale to be Bale and devising a system around it—not the other way around.
For Real Madrid, it's the only way forward. The club went to the lengths of making Bale a €100 million player. Now is the time to think about him like one.