The beginning of the end for Gareth Bale at Real Madrid can be pinpointed to a specific date: Sunday, 23 April 2017.
Real were top of La Liga, in hot pursuit of their first league and European Cup double since 1958, and hosting second-placed Barcelona.
A series of injuries had forced Bale in and out of the side over the previous months, restricting him to five league starts since the turn of the year. Manager Zinedine Zidane kept faith with the Welshman by selecting him against Barca, but the gamble did not pay off: Bale reinjured his calf and was substituted before half-time.
As well as sending Bale to the sidelines again, that game threw the title race wide open after Lionel Messi netted a stoppage-time winner. Zidane was under heavy pressure, and he responded with a significant tactical change.
Until then he had preferred a 4-3-3 formation, placing Bale (when available) on the right wing, Cristiano Ronaldo on the left and Karim Benzema through the middle. But with Bale absent and silverware at stake, Zidane hit upon a new approach for the crucial final stages of the campaign, employing Isco at the tip of a 4-4-2 midfield diamond as Ronaldo moved centrally alongside Benzema.
The results were spectacular. Isco excelled as Real won their last six league games to take the title, also overcoming rivals Atletico Madrid in the Champions League semi-final and thrashing Juventus 4-1 in the final.
That grand finale in Cardiff was bittersweet for Bale. He had returned to fitness but was left on the bench until the game was already won, denying him the dream scenario of a starring role in a showpiece occasion staged in his hometown.
In hindsight, those few weeks can be seen as the turning point in his reputation at Real, especially in the eyes of Zidane. Bale’s status as an unquestioned starter was never truly regained – and explains why his departure now seems inevitable.
Glorious start, gradual demise
During the first three years of his Bernabeu career, there were rarely doubts over Bale’s untouchable stature.
His arrival in the summer of 2013 for a world-record fee of £85m prompted great expectations, and he initially lived up to the hype by scoring a magnificent solo effort to seal a 2014 Spanish Cup final victory over Barcelona, before putting Real ahead in the following month’s Champions League final against Atletico.
Bale’s second season in Spain was less successful, providing a sign of things to come in March 2015 when he was singled out for criticism by the media following a poor run of results. But there was never really a serious question over his place in the starting line-up, and the goals and assists continued to flow.
During that double-winning 2016-17 campaign, however, doubts started to surface. Bale’s recurrent injuries became a serious issue, leading Zidane to conclude he could not count on a player who was regularly unavailable and inconsistent, but still influential enough to force his hand tactically.
Zidane’s switch to a midfield diamond in the latter stages of the double-winning season – although it did not prove to be a successful long-term strategy – strengthened the coach’s impression that Bale was becoming surplus to requirements, and their relationship deteriorated accordingly.
Glorious moments mixed with more frustration
Despite Bale’s loss of status in 2017, he clearly still had a lot to offer and the next couple of years provided plenty of highlights despite a lack of consistency.
The most dramatic episode in that cycle came, of course, in May 2018, when Bale scored twice off the bench against Liverpool to secure another Champions League crown, including one of the competition’s all-time great goals with a stunning overhead volley.
The three key words in that sentence, however, are ‘off the bench’. On the whole, it had been a moderate campaign for the Welshman, who had been hampered by more injuries and did little to change Zidane’s view that he was expendable.
Even in the aftermath of that iconic goal against Liverpool, Bale made his situation worse as he sullied the celebratory tone by revealing, before he had even been presented with his winner’s medal, that he was considering his future. It was a poorly-timed outburst which upset many Real fans, further alienating them from a player who had never made much effort to ingratiate himself.
In the end, Bale stayed in Madrid because Zidane left, and the simultaneous departure of Ronaldo to Juventus appeared to present a chance for redemption as Real prepared for a new era.
It didn’t happen. Bale, like his other high-profile team-mates, was unable to fill the leadership void created by the loss of Ronaldo and the team lurched from one mishap to another. It was a disastrous campaign under Julen Lopetegui and his equally short-lived successor Santiago Solari, and Bale remained a marginal figure throughout, eclipsed by rapidly-emerging Brazilian teenager Vinicius Junior.
He even managed to sabotage his high point of the season, scoring an excellent goal in a derby win at Atletico in February but celebrating with a provocative hand gesture which was widely interpreted as an ‘up yours’ to his critics.
By then, those critics were increasing, while his supporters were rapidly dwindling – even more so when, a couple of weeks later, he scored a penalty against Levante but angrily pushed away team-mate Lucas Vazquez’s attempted celebrations. The end of the road was near.
An ugly ending
Real’s 2018-19 season fell apart in the space of 10 days in March, when three successive home defeats – against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey and La Liga, and Ajax in the Champions League – shattered their hopes of rescuing a dismal campaign.
That trio of losses was the final straw for Solari, who had left out Bale for the game against Ajax. The Argentine was fired and replaced by the returning Zidane.
Considering the complete breakdown in relations they had suffered just a few months earlier, Zidane’s comeback was bad news for Bale. But the winger didn’t help himself, failing to do anything over the remaining weeks of the season, either on or off the pitch, to mend his relationship with his coach or Real’s supporters.
In fact, he further damaged his reputation on the final day of the season against Real Betis, when he reacted to being left on the bench by Zidane by heading straight down the tunnel at the end of the game without offering even a token gesture of applause towards supporters.
By then, an amicable parting of ways looked like the best option for all parties. And if it couldn’t be amicable, the parting was still inevitable.
Good, but not great
None of the negatives of the last couple of years should detract from the strong performances Bale consistently delivered during his first three seasons at the club, or the occasional match-winning brilliance he conjured even during the troubled latter years.
He certainly has not been a flop at Real Madrid, and could never be considered a failure.
Assessing his overall contribution, though, requires a greater degree of nuance.
Yes, he was a key figure in winning four Champions Leagues out of five; but Real’s prime objective, as Zidane admits, of winning La Liga was only achieved once during his six seasons in Spain – and even that was secured while he was out of the team.
Yes, his ability to score and create goals regularly proved decisive over the past six years and he has been unstoppable at times; but he also missed over 100 games through injury.
Yes, he netted a respectable 102 goals at a ratio of nearly one every other game; but that is a modest return compared to fellow elite winger-forwards like Ronaldo (277 club goals since 2013), Messi (290 goals), Neymar (156 goals) and Kylian Mbappe (86 goals in three seasons), with whom Bale was supposed to be rubbing shoulders.
Overall, he had some good spells and several spectacular moments in Madrid, but he also suffered many disappointments personally and collectively. Ultimately, judging his stay in Spain cannot conclude with decisive tributes or extreme condemnations.
On balance, Bale’s Real Madrid career was certainly good, but it has fallen far short of being great.