Gareth Bale: From Real Madrid Outcast to the Cusp of Domination

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistAugust 7, 2016

Real Madrid's Welsh forward Gareth Bale celebrates their victory at the end the UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg football match Real Madrid CF vs Manchester City FC at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, on May 4, 2016. Real Madrid won 1-0 / AFP / CESAR MANSO        (Photo credit should read CESAR MANSO/AFP/Getty Images)

Gareth Bale is rested and healthy. Gareth Bale is confident and comfortable. Gareth Bale is carrying complete belief, both within himself and from everyone connected to Real Madrid

And that's significant, because it's new. 

Gareth Bale has never before entered a season like this. 

Every now and then, when you spend your days, months and years watching football endlessly pass you by, so much of it blurring into one big irrational mess in your mind, you reach a moment or a juncture that genuinely feels big. A separation point. A take-off point. 

The building to such a point is nearly always complex and never linear, the path littered with questions and detours. But then when it arrives, there's a curious sense of clarity that stems from the we're here now. Anticipation follows, your mind suddenly short on patience for actually seeing what you're already picturing. 

And this summer feels like one of those junctures: The looming 2016-17 season could be the Gareth Bale season. 

For many, the most recent and vivid memory of Bale is of him leading Wales to a historic campaign at Euro 2016, and "leading" is the word. In France, the 27-year-old was everything for the Welsh: star player, reference point, scorer of free-kicks, tormentor of defenders, on-field commander, example through action and face of the nation. 

DINARD, FRANCE - JULY 04:  Wales player Gareth Bale faces the media during the Wales press conference ahead of their UEFA Euro 2016 semi final against Portugal at College Le Bocage on July 4, 2016 in Dinard, France.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Stu Forster/Getty Images

Both the force and conviction in his performances were notable but perhaps more so was the continuation of a significant shift in Bale. There's now a comfort to him at this level, a new-found ease in the volatile swirl that is the pinnacle of football. It's been evident on the pitch, of course, but also off it, where he now speaks with confidence, expressing himself in a way he didn't before, embracing the world that surrounds him rather than shunning it.

This growth showed itself at Real Madrid late last season, coinciding with a storming personal run.

In April, he ran all over Barcelona in the second half of the Clasico, overpowering everyone with a certain brutality as the game reached its conclusion and others tired. Soon after, he was throwing Madrid on his back, hauling them to victories on his own against Rayo Vallecano and Real Sociedad

On those afternoons, with stars missing and with conditions difficult, he was basically all Madrid had. But he was all they needed

Then he pushed Madrid past Manchester City in the Champions League semi-finals, going on to claim his second European title. From there, he went to Euro 2016, sparkling in the spotlight. 

Now he returns to Madrid, and the new season looms.

It could be the Bale season.  

It hasn't always been this way. 

You only need to rewind to May 2015, a mere 15 months ago, to stumble upon the moment in time when Bale's agent, Jonathan Barnett, was openly discussing his client's struggles at the Bernabeu. Barnett's assessment was that the Welshman's team-mates weren't passing him the ball. His words hinted at a disconnect and a delicate political situation at a remarkably political club, strengthening the perception of Bale as something of an outcast. 

"We've been vindicated by these statistics and it's what we've been saying all along," Barnett told the Telegraph. "Real have to work with Gareth and pass the ball to him more. Give him more of the ball and let him show everybody what he's good at."

He then added: "He's going to be the best player at Real Madrid when his team-mates work with him and help him."

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 13:  Gareth Bale of Real Madrid reacts during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final, second leg match between Real Madrid and Juventus at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 13, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

This was the sticking point. After a strong debut season, which was too easily and too quickly forgotten, Bale rapidly took on a peripheral existence in his second year in the Spanish capital. In a system not built for him, at a complex club, in a challenging league and in a foreign country, he looked cut off and never really part of it. 

The causes were multidimensional, and the whistling of him at the Bernabeu took the headlines. But that wasn't the problem; communication and adaptation were. 

For anyone living away from home, isolation is an issue. Earlier this year, another Brit and former Real Madrid player Steve McManaman spoke to the Express of the rarely mentioned negatives that come with the protection offered by big clubs.  

McManaman's point was that "the efforts they make to settle you in" prevent players like Bale from throwing themselves into the culture; that "you'll get a translator and 27 people doing everything that you need and want"; that the absence of figure-it-out-yourself moments blunts personal growth. 

For a guy who attracts as much attention as Bale, "throwing yourself in" isn't easy. Immersion and celebrity are not compatible concepts, but you sense the former Spurs star is striking a better balance, finding his place in a new world. 

"I feel like I'm learning the culture, the language," he told Cadena COPE (h/t ESPN FC) in May. "I feel more integrated in the team now."

It was a significant line because it was subtle admission that he wasn't integrated before. But that changed as last season unfolded. Whether it was initially triggered by a greater comfort in a wider sense or simply good form is difficult to tell, almost chicken-and-egg stuff. Regardless, though, one noticed a shift both in how Bale saw himself and how he was seen by his team-mates. In relation to Barnett's line, they began to help him, seek him out, cater for him. 

And he also helped himself. 

Real Madrid's Welsh forward Gareth Bale celebrates a goal during the UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg football match Real Madrid CF vs Manchester City FC at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, on May 4, 2016. / AFP / PAUL ELLIS        (Pho
PAUL ELLIS/Getty Images

Paul Clement, Real Madrid's former assistant coach under Carlo Ancelotti, once told the Guardian's Sid Lowe of Bale's work ethic: "He's a very, very good professional," he stressed. 

The results of that seemed to show themselves last season. In nearly every department and through graft, Bale improved: dribbling, passing, shooting, linking; his touch and his positioning; his work in the air and his understanding of how to use his athleticism in a technical league. 

The progression was immense, and you could see his team-mates being different with him, recognising his growth alongside his ability, seeing a fearsomely rounded footballer in whom they could definitively trust. 

By season's end, he bordered on unplayable. 

And so we return to the season ahead, to the potential for the Bale season. 

On the back of the best six months in his professional career, the Welshman enters 2016-17 in a way he's never entered a campaign before: as indisputably one of the world's best, bristling with confidence, with everything going for him, in a team in which he belongs and with his club trending north

It's important to acknowledge that there are no guarantees here—there never are. But there's the look of a cocktail brewing.

In just 21 league starts last term, Bale reached 19 goals and 10 assists. Those numbers were mightily impressive, but it wasn't just about the figures themselves. It was about the how. The when. Bale didn't beat up on struggling teams but instead seized upon key moments with increasing regularity, going at almost a goal-a-game pace in the process.

In the coming season, much of course will be determined by his ability to overcome the niggling injuries that have deprived him of continuity. But extrapolate his personal curve and what you're left looking at is the sort of domination he's often hinted at but never quite achieved. 

In this form and with this belief, 50 starts across all competitions could yield something in the region of 40 goals. Maybe even 50, who knows? But again, it won't just be about the numbers themselves; it will be the how. 

Bale's left foot is thunderous, he's become a free-kick expert and he's now among the biggest aerial threats in the sport. What's more, his technique has reached a point where he can better use his immense physical gifts, rendering more than a few defenders irrelevant and allowing him to simply run past them. Or all over the top of them, like a warp-speed battering ram. 

And yeah, it's possible that none of this unfolds, too; that this is getting ahead of ourselves. But that's inherently part of these moments that feel genuinely big, of these junctures that feel like take-off points.

So, is this one? Maybe, you know. And it's going to be fun to find out.  


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