For 62 minutes last week, Tottenham Hotspur fans were afforded a glimpse of the future and the past at once. Handed his first start since returning to north London on loan from Real Madrid, Gareth Bale impressed enough against LASK in the Europa League to suggest there was more behind his signing than just sickly sentimentality.
There were some bursts of pace, a few passes in behind and even an outside-of-the-boot cross that was diverted into the back of the net by an opposition player. Of course, this still wasn’t the Bale who scored 21 times in a single Premier League season or the Bale who decided a Champions League with a spectacular overhead kick, but some semblance of that player was visible.
It was a reminder that while Bale has the potential to become a match-winner for Spurs, he still has to prove be belongs in Jose Mourinho’s strongest XI. The narrative appeal of the Welshman’s homecoming is clear, but redemption isn’t a guarantee. He has work ahead of him to earn a place.
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For the time being, it seems Bale will have to use the Europa League to prove his worth. The 31-year-old started in the 3-0 win over LASK and having missed the Premier League trip to Burnley on Monday night looks well-placed to start against Antwerp this Thursday. It will be another chance for Bale to build up his fitness.
Marko Raguz of LASK is tackled by Gareth Bale of Tottenham Hotspur
Image credit: Getty Images
But it’s about more than just finding fitness for Bale. While there would appear to be a spot for him on the right side of Tottenham’s attack, Mourinho is a tough man to please. Tanguy Ndombele, for instance, looked to be a good fit for Spurs last season, but still found himself on the peripheries of the squad until this summer.
Mourinho will be looking closely at Bale in the Europa League to gauge whether he can offer him exactly what he needs in the Premier League. Against LASK, the Welshman’s fading fitness in the second half wasn’t quite so critical, but Mourinho will want to ensure that when Bale’s physicality does return he is willing to do more than just head in one direction, towards goal. Bale must prove himself as an Ivan Perisic and not an Anthony Martial.
Of course, Mourinho hasn’t really needed Bale so far this season. Spurs have netted 20 times in their first eight games (in all competitions), with Harry Kane and Son Heung-min in particular finding their scoring touch. It feels like only a matter of time until Bale is unleashed alongside them, but Tottenham’s good start to the season has afforded Mourinho the luxury of patience.
Bale had only played 344 minutes of league football in 2020 before returning to Tottenham this summer. The North London club undoubtedly did some analytical analysis of what recent matches the Welshman had played before making their move, but such a lack of action made the element of risk attached to Bale’s signing unavoidable.
The Europa League is a competition Mourinho has won twice before. At Porto, he used UEFA Cup success as a platform to build a team that would go on to win the Champions League the following season. At Manchester United, though, victory over Ajax in Stockholm was really as good as it ever got for him at the club.
If his display against LASK is a hint of things to come, Bale will be a major weapon for Spurs to use in the competition this season. And how Mourinho uses the competition this season will hint at his long-term plans, at whether or not it is seen as just one stage of a greater process. The more Bale plays in the Europa League and not the Premier League, the more it would seem he has to prove.